IN March we travelled to Witbank to watch Mbongeni Ngema's new musical, Gert Sibande, Lion of the Eas t.

Three of us arrived in the Mpumalanga town in the evening just as the show was about to begin .

We changed into fresh clothes at the venue because we did not want to miss the fancy launch, which was sponsored by the Mpumalanga government.

I was livid because we arrived in Witbank so late we did not have time to check out all the interesting places and basically familiarise ourselves with the town.

Known for its coal-mining activities, hundreds of thousands of black miners sweated it out as they mined coal to power the unequal apartheid economy in years gone by.

My own father had a stint in the Witbank mines. He was a mine clerk, known as mabhalani. It was regarded as a prestigious job because my father did not have to do the dirty, back-breaking work in the bowels of the earth.

Last week I had another opportunity to visit Witbank. This time it was the opening of a budget hotel, the Stayeasy Hotel.

The two-star establishment could very easily pass for a four-star hotel. I spent a lovely night there.

The hotel is situated at the town's casino complex and like the casino is owned by Tsogo Sun.

The Stayeasy Hotel charges R695 a night if two people share.

Well, the excuse for being in Witbank was the opening of the hotel, but you know what, my team and I had something else in mind.

We wanted to see more than just the new hotel. We wanted to see what exactly tourists can expect when they visit the town where coal is still extensively mined.

We left the hotel at 2.30pm and headed to the Mpumalanga Dam, which is said to be the biggest in the southern hemisphere.

Despite the many coal mines around Witbank the dam is a most attractive spot. It is situated about 15 minutes from the Stayeasy Hotel.

Our group, mainly the media and Southern Sun head office executives, took a drive through town. I was disturbed by the appearance of the town. It was too deserted for a Thursday afternoon.

There were hardly any people around apart from a few shop owners.

The shop owners must be struggling to make a living if there are so few people in town. Honestly, there appeared to be more shop owners than shoppers.

The buildings were in a terrible state. Most of them were dilapidated and falling apart. The paint was peeling off and they were shouting for attention from their owners.

The buildings need urgent renovations because like the rest of the country Witbank is trying to cash in on the Fifa 2010 Soccer jamboree next year.

That's the word from members of the Witbank Tourism Association, who accompanied us on the tour.

The Stayeasy Hotel and nearby Ridge Hotel and Witbank Casino, as well as a number of bed-and-breakfast establishments dotted around the town, which dream of getting the dollars, pounds and euros from visiting soccer fans and tourists, will have to work with the town planners to give Witbank and its surrounds a serious face-lift.

Asthings stand at the moment it is, to put it bluntly, an unsightly place.

Are the city fathers of Emalahleni municipality listening?

Having said that, Witbank has a jewel that is a potential cash cow for both external and internal tourists, offering ample opportunities to investors.

This jewel is the Mpumalanga Dam. There is plenty of land around the lovely dam where holiday accommodation can be built.

A cruise boat ferries groups of 20 people around the dam. The cruise will set you back R2500 for half a day.

Already there are a number of houses dotted along the dam.

There is land for sale. Enterprising people with money should cash in on the deal. One house, a double storey, was selling for R2million.

Witbank is about an hour and a half drive from Johannesburg.

lThe writer toured Witbank courtesy of Southern Sun.