By CHRISTINA SUKOP
Brian Peltason, the owner of the Old Gaol Backpackers, has been engaged in a long-standing feud with the South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra) since the backpackers took occupation of the building 13 years ago.
The dispute has mainly been over the upkeep of the building and how subsequently they did not sign a written lease agreement.
Eight weeks ago Sahra informed Peltason that he was to vacate the premises by 1 April. No official eviction notice was served.
Since then over a thousand supporters of the Old Gaol, both from South Africa and abroad, have launched a Facebook protest against the closing down of the establishment.
However, a significant number of locals, who chose to remain anonymous to avoid possible retaliation, do not share these sentiments.
“The owner of the backpackers has done himself no favours in the manner in which he has conducted his business,” said an anonymous Grahamstown resident. “If he had shown more consideration for his neighbours and greater respect for the building itself he would deserve our sympathy.”
Some local business owners agreed. The owner of a local accommodation establishment stated that they “try to run accommodation establishments of good repute to enhance the town’s reputation. We get woken up at night by visitors who have had to abandon the Old Gaol due to noise, drunkenness and filth and whom we have taken into our establishment.”
Another citizen believes that the backpackers is an embarrassment to the town. “[I have] experienced a lot of what goes on there and to me it’s rough. The people who really have an interest in the town are the locals. The tourists and students who are complaining are not actually thinking about what it is doing for our town,” she said.
Executive members of Makana Tourism said that they have in the past tried to get the Old Gaol inspected and graded, but at that time it appeared that there was no professional criteria required for standards of cleanliness, hygiene or behaviour for backpackers.
Yet there is a general consensus among businesspeople in the hospitality industry that there is a need for a backpackers in Grahamstown.
Therefore, most of those who commented support the improvement of the Old Gaol’s standards as they feel that its “current operation is far short of decent”.
This camp is in favour of Sahra’s plans to use the building as an education centre. Meanwhile Peltason is continuing legal negotiations with Sahra and says he does not know what is going to happen to his business.
They expect to either be served with an official eviction notice, which they will fight against, or Sahra will agree to negotiate with them.
One business owner’s comment summed up the situation as follows: “In the end we feel that an educational move would be more sustainable and in keeping with the area, the museums, the historical value and all the benefits which could arise for the health, wellbeing, and education of our young people.
“Most importantly any contribution and work towards furthering education is without a doubt a top priority for our young people.
If we can encourage and support that initiative, it is surely so much more critical and necessary than encouraging drugs, alcohol and all the damage for which these substances are responsible.
It would be wonderful to see at least one dodgy establishment turned into something of which we can all be proud.”