Once brimming with talent, the West Rand now lives on memories

When I grew up, I had a romantic image of Randfontein, a mining town to the west of Johannesburg.

When I grew up, I had a romantic image of Randfontein, a mining town to the west of Johannesburg.

Tswelelopele, the high school I attended, was mostly peopled from that part of the world. With few exceptions, they all stayed at the school's boarding house and all seemed streetwise beyond their years.

There was of course an added attraction. Peter "Terror" Mathebula had just being crowned world boxing champion in his division.

Patrick "Ace" Ntsoelengoe - who together with Ephraim 'Jomo" Sono are perhaps the finest footballers this country has ever produced - was captivating the country (and later the Americans) with his brand of unhurried class and sophistry. Pure genius.

Then there was his mate and homey, Joseph Setlhodi. For a record exceeding a decade, Kaizer Chiefs fans and supporters had to bank on this Mohlakeng kid who had done good.

Somewhere nearby, in the coloured township of Toekomsrus, a young phenomenon was sweating in the wings, waiting for the spotlight to shine on him. It finally did. Jan "Kid Gavilan" was that young, beautiful talent.

In matters purely athletic, Randfy had an embarrassment of riches.

But it was not only testosterone on display here. Literary talent was also on tap in this little town guarded by brooding mining dumps.

Two of the greatest black journalists of our time, the late Doc Bikitsha and Stan Motjuwadi spoke, told and wrote some of the best stories of Africa with the best of them - Can Thembas, the Casey Motsisis, the Bloke Modisanes and E'skia Mphaheles. Later, much, much later, this clan was joined by the likes of Len Kalane, Horatio Motjuwadi and Gugu Sibiya, among many. T'was Home of the Stars if ever there was any.

The shine has long since turned to rust. The spotlight has shifted elsewhere. A dream deferred.

How can it be? How is it possible that a town brimming with so much talent should today be such a terrible wasteland? How? Why? When last did you see a positive headline emanating from Mohlakeng? From Randfontein? You tell me.

These days, they don't make them like they use to. As I fired these questions, I couldn't help being amazed by the fact that the alderman of Randfontein having being born on March 11 1964, is only 44 years of age.

Thick-set, a pronounced forehead carried on the shoulders of a prize fighter, Zeph Mhlongo comes across as a preacher's son, something I later confirmed as fact. He also speaks the way all good politicians do - polite but persuasive, reflective but expansive. The latter is explainable, and in fact expected. In 1996, until 2000, he was a government spin doctor, weaving tales for the Gauteng department of education's district N7

Randfontein's golden age will return, the executive mayor assures me. "It can only get better from now."

He concurs that the town of his birth punched above its weight before. He remembers playing in the same school team with former Kaizer Chiefs midfielder, Khuse. "But obviously, he was better than me".

Alderman Mhlongo said Randfontein suffered talent- drain because it had nothing much to offer its brightest.

"The fact that people like Khuse, Bra Ace and Bra Banks had to move out of Mohlakeng and play for a Soweto-based team, shows that their hometown lacked opportunities."

It's no accident that Ntsoelengoe, perhaps the most illustrious of Mohlakeng's sons moved to nearby Krugersdorp where he was eventually laid to rest, much to the disappointment of his hometown which nurtured that rare talent and saw it bloom.

The West Rand has always been that pimpled cousin from the farms. He's your cousin, but you want to hide him when friends come calling.

"Developments have always concentrated in Gauteng towns of Johannesburg, East Rand, Vaal and Pretoria, but that is about to change," said Mhlongo.

He's encouraged by recent pronouncements that areas of choice like the Johannesburg northern suburbs are choking because of mass development.

"The West Rand, with its vast tracts of land, reasonable road traffic and huge open spaces offers a better alternative to investors and people wishing to reside in a less stressful environment."

But Randfonein must follow the queue like everyone else, he admits. The line of progression will be the city's older cousin, Krugersdorp where there are already visible signs of interest from developers.

Kaizer Chiefs itself is forgoing the city of gold for Mogale City. Its multimillion-rand state-of-the-art stadium is nearing completion.

Earlier this year, the city gave Mhlongo a war-chest of some R53million, something akin to spare change for the likes of Patrice Motsepe. But a man has got to make do with what a man has.

To confound the matter, he's presiding over a city which finds it difficult to pay its way through. The majority of the people are unemployed and a little more than 40percent live below the breadline. This simply means they cannot afford basic services. And this means the city's fiscus is forever stressed.

His is a depressing job, I told him.

But all is not lost. The national government has identified Mohlakeng as one of its 20 Township Projects where millions will be spent for the overall renewal of this township.

Although the rate of employment is still very low, the city's efforts have yielded some results. Lafarge, one of South Africa's biggest cement companies, has already opened shop in the town, with promises of mass employment.

"Because cement is one of the most valuable commodities as regards the building of stadiums and other infrastructure for 2010, it means we will be playing a direct role in the success of the games," Mhlongo said.