RACK AND RUIN: The Pilgrim's Rest general dealer and photographic studio, which is owned by Christine Grové. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

CHRISTINE Grové has run her general dealer's shop in Pilgrim's Rest, Mpumalanga, for about 33 years. She purchased the shop for R20000 after resigning from her job as a history teacher, having fallen in love with the little town.

"I try to keep everything historically correct in my store. I never put anything that doesn't belong to that era in here," she says.

Recent problems faced by Pilgrim's Rest are not unique but have shed light on the bigger issues surrounding the management of monuments or heritage sites. Should the provincial department of public works be running an entity such as this one? And if not - who should be taking responsibility for our heritage?

For Ms Grové, business has been tough over the past few years and foreigners do not visit in the numbers they used to. Outside her store is a rotting relic that looks like it may once have been a horse-drawn buggy.

"We receive no maintenance help from government. Degradation has been quicker over the past few years and as a result visitor numbers have dwindled."

Many owners were afraid to upgrade their stores before the peak tourist season because their eviction deadline loomed.

Pilgrim's Rest has been thrown into the spotlight in the past few weeks after 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 out all the properties and manages the town, which was declared a national monument in 1986.

Last week, these business owners 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.

Tourism Business Council of SA CEO Mmatsatsi Marobe said the government may have compromised tourism growth in Mpumalanga. "Private-sector investment can help. Government should play a facilitation role and not run the town," she said.

Ms Grové, and many like her, have called on the tourism minister for help. Others have said a cultural centre run by the Department of Arts and Culture could solve the problems the town faces.

The South African Heritage Resources Agency is the custodian of the national estate established under the National Heritage Resources Act. Its duty is to introduce an integrated system for the identification, assessment and management of heritage resources. But it gives the authority to protect and manage these resources to provincial and local administrations.

In this case, it is clear that the public works department has failed Pilgrim's Rest.

Some business owners have called on private companies to invest. In Hazyview, in Mpumalanga, this kind of public-private partnership has worked.

The Good Work Foundation, together with the Hossana Church Community Project, has established the Hazyview Digital Learning Centre, which opens this week. The centre will offer a variety of skills to adequately equip individuals for the job market in SA.

Each year the centre will interact with businesses in the area to determine the skills that are required by the job market and the employees these organisations are seeking. "The foundation's affiliation with Londolozi Game Reserve has forged many relationships with the neighbouring communities' organisations in the provincial construction sector, parastatals such as Eskom, and eco-tourism suppliers of food and beverages, large and small business that will support the initiative," the organisation says.

Clarens, in the Free State, is another example. The town has become well known for the many arts and crafts shops which offer visitors a range of curios and art.

It now serves as a tourist attraction on its own, not just a gateway to the Golden Gate National Park nearby.

In the meantime, the residents and business owners of Pilgrim's Rest have been left to their own devices. Isabel Jacobs, a resident, suggested the town tell the histories of other minorities, too.

"Maybe not only the Boer and gold history, but maybe we should open shops (especially the empty ones) and depict the other part of the pendulum, the struggle history," she says.

"Perhaps it can be run as a section 21 company," Ms Jacobs says.

Marius Brummer, chairman of the business council in the town, said the association would start a marketing campaign soon.

"I hope government can find a way to privatise the town or let the tourism department run it."