IT is midnight and I see the blue lights of police vehicles flashing on the highway outside Springfontein. A large truck has run over a car. The car is flat. There is blood on the tar.
I later heard confirmation of what was obvious: the three occupants had died. They were on their way from the Eastern Cape to a large church indaba in this town.
Welcome to Springfontein, where fatal car accidents between large trucks and cars occur almost every two weeks on the N1 just east of town. For my first visit I booked a ticket on the Greyhound from Cape Town, which dropped me off safely at the large Springfontein garage.
This nosy parker finds public transport more exciting than a trip by car. You see people and have experiences that are not possible in the cocoon of a car. For years I took the train, until it stopped running altogether.
The irony: Springfontein was one of the largest railway junctions on the main line to Johannesburg, being the point where the Bloemfontein line converged with the old East London and Port Elizabeth lines and where a westbound line to other Free State towns started. (Read here about my last trip on the train to Springfontein).
With the decline of the railways and the increase in the use of trucks to transport goods, people moved away. The roads have also become more dangerous.
I have heard horror stories about car accidents. Because the poverty among the local population has increased, they do anything to make money.
A woman whose car rolled between Bethulie and Springfontein died instantly. Her body was stripped of everything she had on her. The gold in her teeth was also removed. Apparently this happens often.
When you have enough gold, a resident tells me, you melt it and sell it. “Yes, you open the mouth right there on the scene and remove the teeth with pliers," he says.
During my first visit, the decay was already visible, but at least there was a layer of pride. My friend Graeme Wedgwood is a Scotsman who made money on the stock market in Johannesburg then decided to open a lavish guesthouse here with an old-fashioned British interior.
He was attracted by the fresh air, the silence, and the fact that it could be a place for travellers between Johannesburg and Cape Town (and vice versa) to spend the night. There was a large garden, a swimming pool, antique furniture, old works of art on the walls and a menu including tender local lamb.
He befriended the farmers and their families and created jobs for residents in the township. Alas, in less than a decade, Springfontein and many other towns in the area withered and collapsed.
From 2009 until 2018, Ace Magashule was the premier of the Free State. Under him and his henchmen, proud towns turned into one-horse towns.
“The post office operated at full capacity for decades; not like today," says Graeme. “Heaven knows what people do when they don't have transport. It was also the only way to obtain grants. They don't do that any more. People now have to pay to go to neighbouring towns. It's shameful, but the government doesn't care."
One late afternoon I drive past the garage and ask the owner where I can have a drink, since the hotel is closed permanently. He points to a house on top of a hill.
About 15 large trucks are parked behind the garage. The drivers come here to rest when they are tired. Images of Mad Max come to mind; I walk to one that has 12 wheels, each the size of a grand piano.
The afternoon smells of gasoline and tyres; I can taste them on my tongue. I get into my friend's old Merc and start driving towards the house. I feel like a glass of cold wine.
Arriving at the house, there is silence. I knock. Nobody answers. Just as I turn around, I hear the door creak open.
A young woman with a hat and badly applied lipstick opens the door. “I want some wine," I say.
“We're actually closed, but come inside." I follow her to a lapa where there is a bar. There is nobody else.
“We are actually closing," she says. Business is bad. Her parents are going to leave, but she will stay for a while until she can get out of here.
“To Bloemfontein," she says. “This place ruined me."
The windows rattle in the winter wind.
She drinks with me and seems to experience alcoholic blues. She talks about the primary school. The children are very thin. The parents don't have work. The only food they get is at the school in the afternoon. “On Mondays they have no energy." Not to mention holidays; she doesn't even want to think about it.
She tells me there will be a prayer meeting next to the N1 the following morning. For all the accidents that happen there. I should come.
When I say goodbye, she grabs my arm. “Come to the prayer meeting,” she says, “but run away as soon as you can. This place is not for you.” She follows me with her eyes as I drive away.
The next morning I attend the prayer meeting. There are black, white and brown worshippers. “Our Lord in heaven, save this road," one woman begins. “Save us from death, save the people who drive on these roads."
In the background you can hear the big Mad Max trucks speeding by. More people are praying. Two teenagers, a boy and a girl, are asked to recite the Lord's Prayer. They are thin, like delicate flower petals, and shiver in the cold.
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come…” Their eyes are tightly closed.
Two days later, four people die on the road, almost exactly where we were praying. “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.”
One day, my friend asked if I could take care of his guest house for a month. I could work from there and keep an eye on things.
It is summer and the heat is unbearable. One of his dogs dies from a snake bite. I feel like I'm going to be bitten at any moment too. Then this is how I will die, I think. Alone in Springfontein, in a heatwave. Green blowflies will feast on me.
One day, there is a power outage in the whole town. It lasts for three days. Fortunately there are no guests; I walk through the haunted house with candles.
Then the taps run dry. I go to the cafe and all they have is hot Coke. Outside, about 10 people are begging me to buy them Coke. They are thirsty.
I buy all the available Cokes and keep two for myself. At least there are a few soft drinks in the guest house.
One night, three men who were kept in the town's prison cells on charges of murder, escape. Everyone is afraid.
When I walk through the town, I see empty houses with open doors and grass and weeds growing inside. Windows slam when the mountain wind starts blowing.
The town's swimming pool is empty; the tennis courts are rotting; the sports field is dry. In the evening I hear a horde of dogs barking and whining. I walk past the house and I see dogs. Some time later I see this on Facebook:
9 April 2019
House of Horror in Springfontein
In response to an anonymous complaint, the Animal Welfare Society in Bloemfontein removed 60 dogs from dire living conditions in a house in Springfontein. The initial complaint was that the owner had given the dogs sleeping pills so they could die before contracting the parvo virus.
According to Duán Matthee, inspector at Bloemfontein's AWS, the inbreeding among the dogs was so bad that some of them had extra toes or deformed heads.
“It was truly a sad state of affairs. There was dog excrement everywhere. It was so dirty."
He said up to 10 dogs, of mixed sexes, were kept in a single room. As a result, the dogs just kept breeding.
“When I opened the door of a cupboard, a dog jumped out. We found another dog that was trapped under a bed. Another dog was kept in a small space full of cobwebs behind a cupboard in a corner of a room," Matthee said.
I just want to mention that this is not a longing for the old days of apartheid; it is simply about the decline of a town as a result of a rotten government. It has nothing to do with skin colour. I also wonder if our country hasn't always had inept governments.
Just around the corner, in Philippolis, Jens Friis tells of the blessing of inhabitants who do what they can to counteract deterioration. If the Kopanong municipality sometimes doesn't have petrol for its garbage truck, the ratepayers association usually collects the black bags.
“And if they can, some of the residents fill potholes in the streets with sand (in the absence of tar). At our Groenhuis guest house, some of my workers pick up trash every week.
“That's what one has to do, because the municipalities will never be the same again.
“It is encouraging that Philippolis's property prices have continued to rise steadily over recent years. It is certainly a good barometer that people would like to live here. For the first time, perhaps ever, rental property is virtually unaffordable in Philippolis."
A former resident, Kobus Linde, tells of his youth in Springfontein: “I was privileged to be a Springfonteiner from 1972 to 1981. The inhabitants mostly worked for the railways and the farming communities. Everyone knew each other; we were almost like one big family.
“I remember the Wiets Marais Sports Ground. Athletics meetings were held, rugby matches were played, also netball, and on a Saturday afternoon tennis was played while the children frolicked in the park.
“There was the Omega bakery, the station, the old station building where films were shown at the time, the hotel, post office, library, Uncle Pietie's wood and coals, Aunt Sus Botes's Springbok Cafe, Patsy's Zambesi Cafe. Opposite was Dr Johan Lotter. I remember the United Building Society, Theresa Ladies Shop, the magistrate's office, the solicitors' building, City Hall, Barclays Bank, Pep Stores and Avbob.
“One whole street was full of railway houses, inhabited by railway employees, and at the other end was the clinic. Also a creamery and dairies. Uncle George Funck, a policeman, and his band played at many dances and weddings in the town hall.
“My father, Frikkie, was the owner of the brick kilns and the ambulance. He also owned numerous houses and plots in Springfontein.
“Today, Springfontein is dilapidated and a struggling town, but the memories will always be there. In my heart I will always be a Springfonteiner."
The last time I left Springfontein, a few verses of a poem I had written came to mind. They reminded me of Ace Magashule and the hungry children:
Ek het die vetblink pense en blinkswart motors van leiers gesien
Hul minagtende blik op ’n vernietigde land
Waar hulle agter hoë mure sit met KFC en Nando’s
Die reuk van olierige vleis druppend met drillerige welvaart.
* To read more about the history of the concentration camps in Springfontein during the South African War, click here.
♦ VWB ♦
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