JUNE and July are usually quiet months in the tourist town of Pilgrim's Rest in Mpumalanga, but this year things have been different, as local and foreign visitors flocked to the little farm village to catch the "last of it".

The town has experienced a bumper winter season and many stores have sold out of goodies such as magnets and postcards which display the words Pilgrim's Rest, as visitors scrambled to get their hands on these goods in anticipation of the town's demise.

Even though business owners yesterday managed to obtain an interdict to stop their eviction after they were asked to tender for the very businesses they had been running for many years, visitors unsure about the outcome of the case tried to make their last trip to the historic site.

The provincial public works department issued eviction notices to some business owners at the end of last month in what it said was a bid to transform the town. The department leases all the properties and manages the town, as it was declared a national monument in 1986.

It is estimated that about 200 jobs would be lost if the owners were evicted.

Sharon Paterson, the owner of Pilgrim's Pantry, was given 31 days to leave her business, for which she was forced to tender. The winning tender for the lease of the store, which sells coffees and is famous for its homemade chilli sauce and salad dressing, offered about R5800 for the property over five years. Ms Paterson offered about R294000 for her business over five years. The tender process, many owners have said, was corrupt.

Ms Paterson said the winter school holidays this year had been good. "It's a pity that they only support us when they think it will be taken away. South Africans need to support their heritage."

Several journalists also descended on the town, eager to tell the story but contributing to the frenzy.

Paulus Mshego, chairman of the residents committee fighting the evictions, said many people had visited the town over the past few months after hearing about the furore over the tenders.

The manager of a souvenir shop on the main street says the shop has only a few magnets left. Many South African and foreign tourists have come to hear about the problems and have been buying up postcards, magnets and anything bearing the words "Pilgrim's Rest".

In the Gauteng North High Court yesterday, Judge Stanley Makgoba awarded an interdict preventing the eviction of business owners, including Ms Paterson, saying the eviction of owners and awarding tenders to outsiders "could not work".

The provincial authorities were also interdicted from awarding any tenders for new occupants.

At issue is the ability of the public works department to run a historic entity such as Pilgrim's Rest. Maintenance remains a concern for most tenants, as repairs to leaky roofs and the painting of walls are being paid for by the leaseholders. Many have stopped paying rent in lieu of maintenance costs.

The department could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

vallien@bdfm.co.za