Local is more than lekker, it’s essential

Column in Grocott’s Mail April 17 2012

The closure of the local CNA, after Dunns and the Telkom retail outlet, has raised for me the spectre of economic decline in Grahamstown. What might close next?

Yet there is no need to panic. In part, the CNA’s troubles at least are national: the changing patterns of media consumption and a lack of focus make it a wonder than any CNA stores survive. As intensive media consumers like me increasingly get our news from the Internet, popping in to the CNA to buy magazines is old-fashioned. And I have for a while now wondered exactly what niche the CNA fills, since they sell everything from sweets to CDs? Telkom is under pressure to cut costs and every time I visited its very clean and friendly and now-closed outlet there were few other customers.

That the closures were all in the same part of town should be a clue that something else is happening. Jeff Peires, noted local historian, points out that the stores in the High Street are also the subject to what he calls Third World Blight and the sucking in of business by Peppergrove Mall. This is not unique to Grahamstown. Malls everywhere attract business away from main street shops.

And location is clearly important for shops. Peires has also pointed out to me that the Steers restaurant, for example, seems to have flourished simply by moving a bit further down the High Street towards the university.

The closures remain worrying evidence of Grahamstown’s general economic malaise, however. Despite being the home of one of the country’s finest universities, several pricey elite private schools, and the National Arts Festival, the city just plods along. Restaurants and pubs come and go. Just about the only new feature of the cityscape are the numerous new blocks of flats and townhouses designed to provide accommodation mainly for students.

The chimerical Woolworths food store is illustrative. Ever since I arrived in Grahamstown I have been waiting for a Woolworths food store to open. Anthea Garman, my colleague in the School of Journalism and Media Studies, tells me that she and her husband were told when they arrived at Rhodes that a Woolworths food store would be opening soon, and Anthea has been here a lot longer than I have. It looks like I may be in for a long wait.

So, like other Grahamstown residents I shop at Woolworths in PE. I miss the Woolies range of quality fresh vegetables and salad ingredients as well as other groceries. The money I spend in PE could have helped create jobs in an expanded Grahamstown Woolworths store.

For this and other reasons, I prefer to buy food locally, and would not bother to stop in PE to visit the Woolworths store there if I could avoid it. Though geographical monopolies do push up the price of some things, which I would prefer to buy in PE if I went there often enough rather than passing through on my way somewhere else, it doesn’t always, and I’ve found some Grahamstown goods and services to be markedly cheaper than in PE.

I do feel some pride in buying local where I can, as long as the price difference is not punitive. So, for example, I make a point of buying Springvale olive oil and table olives because they are produced in the Eastern Cape. The quality is equal to what is available from the Western Cape, which surpasses some European olive oils, and it strikes me as strange that Pick n Pay stocks olive oil from Spain and Greece, but not from our own region.

For the same reason, and because locally produced food tends to have a shorter supply chain and so be truly fresh, I try to buy some of foodstuffs I need from the Farmers’ Market on Saturday, and from our own local vegetable suppliers in Peppergrove Mall.

The money I spend on local goods by choice is a form of what in Black Economic Empowerment legislation is called “preferential procurement”. Government’s preferential procurement regulations now require local content as well as black empowerment, because previous procurement regulations allowed tenders to go to BEE firms which simply imported goods to the detriment of domestic manufacturing.

However, local in this legislation simply means not imported or “domestic”. The kind of preferential procurement that would boost jobs and business in Grahamstown, is local in a specific sense of being from Grahamstown or from somewhere in Makana or even Cacadu perhaps. Is it compatible with the legislation I wonder? Makana Municipality or the university, for instance, could comply with preferential procurement regulations by buying from a BEE-compliant company somewhere else in South Africa.

Clearly, our major institutions should have procurement policies that encourage buying locally wherever possible. Not only charity begins at home.