The Rise and fall of Babelegi Industrial Park

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Nestlés new cereal and noodle manufacturing factory in Babelegi, is one of the remaining factories today

Black History Month Series:

Before the building of the modern bridge that connected Temba to Babelegi, it was an old rickety or wobbly wooden bridge popularly known as “Teme-Teme” that provided access from Leboneng (through that walkway from Mabena`s General Dealer) and the emerging new industrial site that came to be known as Babelegi.

Manned by an old man who had volunteered and survived through monetary collections to provide maintenance to this heritage bridge, Teme-Teme witnessed the “industrial revolution” of Babelegi into a local economic hub that symbolically and literally grew to “carry” (go “belega” in Setswana) the hopes of so many between 1968 to 1990, when its dramatic decline set in.

The Appies river/Tshwae, plays an important part to the history of the people of Temba

Driving through the industrial park today, brings back a sense of deep nostalgia to witness the decay of this place which at its height in the 1980`s employed as many as 20,000 men and women from Temba and the neigbouring villages stretching from Majaneng to Lebotloane, from Ramotse to Mametlhake and from Sekampaneng to Dilopye.

The early dawn, what the Batswana referred to as “mahube a naka tsa kgomo”, was disrupted by the sound of Bodisatswana buses ferrying the industrial workers into their various workplace destinations through the arterial road that ran through the periphery of the industrial park, before taking a cul-desac close to the Nestle (then called Borden) Factory back to their bus depot.

As if competing with the “buzz” of the sewing machines manned by a workforce of a 1000 seamstresses at the Springbok Clothing, or the “humming” of the hot furnaces molding tiles at Samca Tiles, the bird life at the nearby Tshwane River was equal to the task by creating its own harmony which formed part of the ecosystem that was given life by the source of the river.

The Samca tiles factory at Babelegi

The Tshwane river that had earned its fame through urban legend of a “mermaid” called “Mamogashoa”, who once caused a tornado and flooding, angered by the claim that the local fishermen had stolen her children. Some in the community claimed that, in fact it was the legendary “Mamaduku”, and not the fishermen, who had committed the act.

But little unknown to many, the Babelegi Industrial Park was a project that was destined for failure from the beginning, since its establishment was linked to the Apartheid Grand Plan of the politically unsustainable Bophuthatswana Homeland or Bantustan system which survived from 1977 to 1990.

To understand this, is to make a historical connection of the forced resettlement of the early settlers from places like Walmansthal and Marabastad to Temba in 1942. A move that was politically motivated to remove black communities (all over South Africa) who were closer to white communities (in this case Pretoria), to create black homeland settlements which were economically self-sustainable.

Almost ten years after winning the watershed 1948 elections that ushered in formal Apartheid, the Nationalist Party government promulgated a set of legislations that resulted in the ultimate creation of Babelegi and Bophuthatswana.

The Bantu Investment Corporation (BIC) Act, Act No. 34 of 1959, formed part of the apartheid system of racial segregation in South Africa. And in combination with the Bantu Homelands Development Act of 1965, the BIC Act allowed the South African government to capitalize on black entrepreneurs and selected white industrialists to operate business and new industries in key economic zones like Temba.

Armed with these two pieces of legislations, the then Department of Bantu Administration approached the local Amandebele-ba-Lebelo Tribal Authority to lease and ultimately buy the 176 hectares piece of land for the establishment of the Babelegi Industrial Park in 1968.

In his master’s thesis, “Son of Babelegi” (2015), Gaongalelwe Tiro aptly captures these historic developments when he writes: “Babelegi is a product of the apartheid government’s industrial decentralization drive that aimed to further its policy of separate development. It is one of the so-called growth points that aimed to create job opportunities for black South Africans away from places decreed white areas.”

And true to this plan, the advent of Babelegi fueled the economic boom and prosperity of Temba for two decades from 1970 to 1990. It`s success as an enterprise was halted by the political collapse of the Apartheid and Bophuthatswana government after the unbanning of the ANC in 1990.

Instead of facing out the existing incentive arrangements that sustained the Babelegi Industrial Park, the new ANC government scraped the industrial decentralization program and unplugged the financial subsidies that were enjoyed by the industrial investors, and this precipitated the mass exodus of many factories and the loss of almost 15,000 jobs between 1990 and 1995, leaving behind an industrial wasteland in its wake. Only a few financially sustainable companies like Nestle and Samca Tiles remained and created employment for the locals.

With the rise of unemployment in the area, there is no doubt that the socio-economic decline of Temba and its neighboring villages, was intractably connected with the fall of Babelegi. Even the nearby Carousel Casino which once boosted the “largest gambling space” in the Southern Hemisphere experienced the loss of business after the collapse of Babelegi.

During the glory of Babelegi, the Carousel Casino also bloomed

This singular event also led to the rise of a myriad of social ills like crime, alcohol and drug abuse (notably Nyaope) in the area as the authority of parents was weakened by their economic disempowerment through unemployment. The migration of workers to the City of Pretoria which is almost 45 kilometers from Temba, meant that parents had to leave as early as 4am and return home after 8pm as commuters, leaving their children unattended.

Some of us witnessed all these sad socio-economic events unfolding in front of us like a tragedy waiting to happen. For it was in 1971 that my family relocated from Springs in the East Rand when my father was recruited to become the manager of the Bantu Investment Corporation (or Bantu Beleggings Korporasie, as it was called in Afrikaans).

The BIC Business Centre was located at the current Tshwane North TVET Temba Campus opposite the Temba Police Station. And it was the BIC that was a precursor to what was later to be called the Bophuthatswana National Development Corporation (BNDC) in 1977. Through our age of innocence, we played in the same grounds where the idea and activation of the Babelegi project was conceived and executed.

And as we celebrate the Temba Black History Month, we acknowledge in twisted tongues tainted by political contradictions, the role that Babelegi Industrial Park has contributed to the socio-economic development and cultural life of the Temba Community.

During its prime, Babelegi was the engine that ignited the economic boom and population explosion of Temba as we know it today. It was against its backdrop that the township expanded into areas such as Unit D, creating a new middle class of professionals who emerged to give civil service to its local government offices, magistrate administration, clinics and hospitals, police stations, schools and colleges.

Through its two decades of existence, Babelegi was a like a proverbial mother-figure who carried the “Temba community” through the turbulent years from 1970 to 1990 and contributed to its solid urban architectural infrastructure.

It is also unfortunate that the President in his State of the Nation Address, did not mention Babelegi as one of the industrial parks earmarked for development, hopefully it is on the list.