One might think time has stood still in the small Drakensberg town, but efforts are being made to keep it relevant for today’s residents.
Travelling on the R617 towards the southern region of the Drakensberg, the small town of Bulwer demands that drivers travelling down the main street avoid wandering local inhabitants and possibly livestock.
The regional road has already taken travellers through Boston and will pass on to Underberg, the town considered the gateway to the mountains. Bulwer nestles in the shadow of the Amahwaqa (the misty one) Mountain and, on the surface, is a stark reminder that there are towns where time has stood still.
Founded during the 1875-1880 tenure of Natal governor Sir Henry Bulwer and named after him, the town still supports its surrounding dairy and forestry farming community. It also houses South Africa’s oldest yellowwood church, built in 1885, renovated by forestry company Mondi Paper in 1989 and still used on various occasions.
Yet often the beauty of places is their ability to regenerate and thus remain relevant for new generations. Driving around Bulwer unveils evidence of that renewal – the New Bulwer Taxi Rank located along the main street; the construction of new offices for the Department of Social Development from older derelict buildings; the conversion of the old Bulwer Prison into offices for the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa), Department of Labour and Department of Home Affairs; and the R35 million investment into the modern Bulwer Community Service Centre.
The centre’s administrator, Sfiso Zondi, says construction began in 2016 with the intention for the building to become a one-stop-shop for government services in Bulwer. This would place Sassa, labour, home affairs, social development, the South African Police Service and other sundry government offices all under a single roof.
However, the plan went awry and other government departments began their own construction projects, with derelict buildings renovated for their purposes. Zondi says the thinking behind not moving to the new building was economic – the various departments believe it is more economical to own their building than pay rent to another government department.
The upside is Bulwer now offers potential businesses prime, modern office space for rent as well as offering its townspeople some of the government services in a single visit.
Zondi says the municipality began opening offices in December 2018 and will eventually accommodate five spaces in the building including the reception area, ratepayers’ office, Disaster Management Unit, Ward 10 councillor’s office and centre management and administration.
The Icembe Foundation, operating on behalf of the Department of Public Works, as well as the Independent Electoral Commission may also be accommodated within the space, but Zondi says there are three offices each measuring 64m² available for rent to local business.
“We are actively looking for tenants to take up this space and it is available immediately,” he says, indicating the R120/m² is negotiable. Also negotiable is renting the community centre space, provided the business has an element of community service and youth development.
Rent includes lights and water, access to the communal boardroom facilities and around-the-clock armed response security. In addressing the reality of towns like Bulwer, Zondi says the centre will incorporate smaller, on-site trading stalls for emerging businesses and be a centre for education in the region as that hope for future generations
Forestry is big business in the surrounding countryside
Originally incorporated as South African Pulp and Paper Industries, Sappi is a South African pulp and paper company with global operations.
Liquor on R617
The local bottle store takes its name from the only road servicing Bulwer, and satisfies the demands of thirsty patrons.
Mount Natura Boutique Hotel and Spa
Built in 1940 and originally the Bulwer Inn, the Mount Natura Boutique Hotel and Spa offers accommodation for adventure seekers travelling to Bulwer. The hotel’s decor transports visitors to earlier times with authentic black wooden beams, high ceilings and historic broadswords and battle axes imported from England and Spain.
Ithala Finance Development Corporation
Born out of the KwaZulu-Natal Development Corporation established to develop black areas in KwaZulu-Natal, the Ithala Finance Development Corporation (Ithala) is the provincial financial development agency for KwaZulu-Natal. The agency is one of KwaZulu-Natal’s primary drivers of economic development and a strategic enabler supporting economic growth among previously disadvantaged communities.
Part of the Spar Group, Built-It spread 350 retail stores across southern Africa has been supplying building materials to local communities for more than 30 years.
Gama Classic Funerals
Gama Classic Funerals has grown from a small business operating in Pietermaritzburg to a company with branches across the province. The company also works with other service providers across the country through strategic partnerships.
Opportunities in tourism and retail
The town marks the start of the southern Drakensberg region and provides opportunities for nature enthusiasts. This means there are opportunities for accommodation as well as nature-based businesses – birding, hiking, paragliding and 4×4 trails.
There are derelict buildings that can be renovated and refurbished to accommodate small businesses and other commercial enterprises while tapping into the town’s natural beauty and tourism opportunities.
The surrounding countryside is strongly dominated by its farming community, producing forestry and dairy. Supplying those sectors’ needs will be an opportunity for local investors seeking a quiet town for lifestyle, and a market requiring its services.
Underberg, situated 35km further along the R617, is the closest town for retail and essential goods shopping. While informal traders provide a service for fresh fruit and vegetables, the town lacks a major shopping outlet for bread, milk, groceries and convenience. Food retailing also always has a place within communities. Currently fast-food services operate from converted containers and the cafe at the local petrol station, but there is scope to broaden that offering for more general supplies.