Since the violent death of Andries Tatane at the hands of police the town has become a hotbed of political instability, writes Kwanele Sosibo.
Molefi Nonyane, a Meqheleng Concerned Citizens (MCC) committee member and comrade of the late Andries Tatane, was the first person we visited on our arrival in Ficksburg last Wednesday.
Clad in a red fleece sweater and a matching Nike cap, Nonyane complained of having the flu when we met him in a suburban street near the central business district. He climbed into the car and we made our way uphill to a relatively functional section of Meqheleng township.
Between a row of mostly extended RDP houses was a small office housing staff working for a funeral scheme. Inside, a few young people greeted Nonyane and he updated them on the MCC's efforts to have local municipal officials investigated for corruption.
A larger meeting took place immediately afterwards in a community hall adjacent to the vandalised Meqheleng library. About 200 residents, mostly youths from the area, gathered in the hall to hear Nonyane speak and vent their mounting frustration.
Tatane's violent death lifted the lid on an already boiling cauldron that was being stirred by a collective of his comrades from the MCC. Exact accounts of the MCC's formation tend to differ, depending on whether you ask the old-school teachers or the more flamboyant coterie of young entrepreneurs who make up the group. But they all agree that the MCC was formed in February because of a growing need to improve conditions in the neglected township and the scruffy town as a whole.
The April 13 march that sealed Tatane's fate was the second stab at mass action after a series of consultative meetings with the community.
The meeting last Wednesday was pivotal, if only because of its revelation of tensions within the structure and the restlessness in the locale it represents. "The MCC committee felt we were not ready [to address the people] but the youths have already organised the meeting so I am coming to see them," said Nonyane, the man who was photographed holding Tatane's lifeless body at Ficksburg's Market Square on the day of his death.
On the way to the meeting, Nonyane told me the MCC had been "reliably informed" that Setotso local municipality staff members, placed on special leave after MCC members accused them of corruption, would return to work and simply receive warnings.
In the weeks following Tatane's death the heads of the directorates of financial services, corporate services, and economic and community services were all placed on special leave, as was the manager of electricity, roads and storm water in the directorate of technical services.
"We believed that the processes were genuine, that people would be expelled if found guilty," said Nonyane. "We did not disturb the elections and encouraged people to vote ANC, which was good. We didn't even mention the [contentious issue of the] candidates.
"On May 31 a report was due after the commission of inquiry, but the provincial cooperative governance and traditional affairs department head [Kopung Ralinkontsane] did not show up. Now we see the process was merely a soothing exercise."
The frustrations expressed by Nonyane are mirrored by rising agitation among the youth of Meqheleng. The denial of a permit for a march planned on May 13 led to spontaneous civil disobedience. The subsequent vitriolic public departure of one of its members, Mosoue Matlala, dented the MCC's credibility.
Appearing on local radio station Setsoto FM, Matlala accused his former colleagues of manipulating public discontent to get themselves into prime positions to benefit from future development projects in Ficksburg. He also mentioned a trust fund which, he alleged, was bankrolled by overseas donors in the wake of Tatane's death, that had been established secretly.
In the community hall Nonyane's damage control seemed to go down well. Catching intermittent snatches of Sesotho I made out reiterations of his earlier utterances to me. "Third forces are messing things up big time," Nonyane had said in the car on the way to the meeting.
Later that evening members of the MCC's committee met behind closed doors in a suburban restaurant, apparently to formulate a strategy for reaching a breakthrough with the municipality. At about the same time Nonyane, who was in the meeting, sent me a text message warning that Meqheleng could go up in flames. The youth, he intimated, were not happy.
But as we drove around the township that night the only fires we could see were those surrounded by residents trying to ward off the biting chill. A group of young men huddling around one fire expressed ambivalence about the MCC.
"The MCC was meant to be a temporary thing," one of the men said. "These people volunteered to do what they are doing. Their concerns are more in line with older people's concerns. We don't have cars [alluding to poor roads], we don't want RDP houses. The youth here want jobs and activities like Aids awareness. The youth centre has been sitting empty for about three or four years."
People forget, he said, that Tatane was going to run as an independent candidate in the local government elections. "I can understand why his wife would say it [his death] was a hit. It is because of how vocal he was. His death was a real setback because he had time for people. There are people that went to varsity because of him."
At about 9pm that night Nonyane and fellow MCC member Tsheliso Mpekoa were arrested. Nonyane, a key witness in the Tatane murder case, was apparently arrested on a fraud charge dating back to 2006 and relating to the sale of a house. He was held for two nights and maintained that the timing of the arrest amounted to intimidation, given his scheduled court appearance the following day. Mpekoa, who protested against the arrest, was detained overnight.
The following day the eight policemen accused of murdering Tatane appeared in court. The morning began quietly enough, with a few people milling about outside the Ficksburg Magistrate's Court. But when members of Tatane's family made a low-key entrance after 9am, the number of people with his grainy mug shot emblazoned on their chests began to multiply.
Soon Voortrekker Street seemed to shudder under the sustained onslaught of toyi-toying. Placards bearing all manner of expletives were being hoisted in every direction. About half a dozen Operation Khanyisa Movement (OKM) members, distinguished by their red T-shirts, joined the protesters. They had come from Johannesburg to lend support to the MCC. The youngest among them, the steely Bobo Makhoba, held a camcorder and filmed intermittently. Like many people around him, he was unsure about what was happening inside the courthouse.
In the next hour the defendants were whisked in and out of court and the toyi-toying intensified until a policeman on the corner of McCabe and Voortrekker streets made an announcement on a bullhorn, giving the crowd five minutes to disperse. Most of them scattered, hurrying off in the direction of the square where Tatane was shot.
Thomas Myburgh, a middle-aged man with a beard and a turban, stood his ground, disgusted by the apparent show of cowardice. The scene, he said, encapsulated how he felt about the MCC and reminded him of the day Tatane was killed.
"I have dual thoughts [about the MCC]," he said. "Others can stand for the people but others are just opportunistic." For Myburgh, the solution is simple: "The people must choose their leaders. But they are voting ANC, that's the fokken nonsens with them. If we have a committee elected by the people then we can change this structure, but we must start here [pointing to the municipal building]."
A few minutes later the lanky Mpekoa was released from police custody. He was hoisted high by the remaining crowd and gave a defiant impromptu speech.
A meeting between MCC committee members and the OKM was planned for later that day at the home of an MCC member. When it finally got under way, steaming plates of samp and curried beans were passed around to a party of close to 20 people. Makoba got the ball rolling, stating that the meeting's objective was to strengthen ties with the MCC before giving advice on how to engage the police as well as other resistance tactics. He deliberately switched off his phone in what turned out to be a small but significant gesture. As the two parties exchanged views the din of vibrating cellphones from MCC members was a constant interruption.
At some point one of the MCC members interrupted the meeting with news that several ward councillors in Ficksburg and neighbouring Senekal had been taken from their homes to places of safety because of fears that their lives might be in danger. The glee in his voice was unsettling.
Later that night, petrol bombs were thrown at two houses in Meqheleng. One belonged to the municipality's head of legal affairs and communication, Thabo Mokoena, the other to Vunga Rose Mohala, the councillor for ward 16. Mohala, who had been the butt of derisive comments about her competence during the elections, was quoted as saying she did not understand the motive for the attack. Minimal damage was caused to both structures.
Although arrests in connection with the attacks were yet to be made by this week, it was clear that Ficksburg and the MCC were at a crossroads. Now, more than ever, the MCC needs to be seen as accountable. With the ANC-controlled local municipality having lost all credibility, the resultant political vacuum and the MCC's aversion to formality mean that Meqheleng remains wide open to political opportunism that may see the community turning on itself with ferocious intensity.
Kwanele Sosibo is the Eugene Saldanha fellow in social justice reporting, sponsored by CAF Southern Africa