Just another dorpie

The Vierkleur and the old Boer Republic flags no longer adorn the streets of Ventersdorp. The terrifying sight of Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging leader Eugene Terreblanche and his masked Ystergaard warriors is no more. Also missing are regular reports of lynching of blacks in this town.

The town has become like any other South African dorp.
But change is more than the absence of terror or of naked racism, as its citizens are finding out. Now, under African National Congress local government on a council with eight ruling party councillors and two from the Democratic Alliance, one would expect a transformed town with delivery on the boil.

Not so for the people of Tshing township and the surrounding rural areas.

Take Dora Schalkwyk. This week she went to the Ventersdorp police station to lay a charge against “my own government”.

Schalkwyk had reached the end of her tether because she felt local government officials were denying her and other women the opportunity to earn a living.

Schalkwyk runs an empowerment project with four other women sewing tracksuits and other garments for local schoolchildren, but the project is now high and dry.

The local economic development project had over two years trained many women who went on to open their own dressmaking businesses. Part of their profits was handed over to the council to assist in community development. Schalkwyk claims they have been handing over their earnings to the local municipality for the past two years.

But a month ago the council disconnected the water and electricity from their premises. Tracksuit production stopped and cabbages in adjacent vegetable projects started wilting.

It did not end there. Officials from the municipality allegedly jumped through the windows of the locked offices and removed some computer equipment and documents. That was when Schalkwyk decided to take the legal route.

The question is: why would a local municipality take such action when the project is typical of both the food security and public works programmes discussed in the Cabinet’s lekgotla?

The municipality says the project owes money for water and electricity for the premises and its members are unwilling to share their facilities with other people. Community members, however, say the answer lies in the Ventersdorp council’s failure “to use its power effectively” and in the fact that a white dominated administration is running the show. Residents allege that while Ventersdorp has slain its biggest racial dragons, transformation has not seeped down to its grassroots.

Municipal manager Zaid Bhabha confirms that of his top four managers two are black and two white and that the rest of middle management is white. But he denies that this has an impact on delivery. “Obviously we have an affirmative action policy but it can’t just throw people out of jobs,” Bhabha contended.

While driving around Tshing township, with its many old and dilapidated houses, we discovered a group of youngsters jumping through a gap in the wall to the old Tshing community hall where they practise dancing and singing in preparation for regional competitions. The municipality has locked the hall and intends selling it off.

Local playwright Velaphi Kaqankase says: “They deny us access to the hall and expect us to pay, irrespective of whether it is just a rehearsal or a live performance. As emerging artists we find that problematic as we are trying to stay off the streets.”

The alternative is a new hall where they are expected to pay R250 a year and an unspecified amount every time they use it, an example of the cost recovery programmes that many municipalities institute because they are cash-strapped.

North-West provincial local government MEC Darkie Afrika insists that youth cannot be expected to pay for a service if they do not make a profit from it, but the council still insists on payment. “That was a decision taken by a white manager who does not understand the township culture. How can you charge youth instead of encouraging efforts to get them off street corners and shebeens?” asks Lawrence Motlhoiwa of the Ventersdorp Community Development Forum

Not far from the locked hall is a recently opened bottle store that was a council beer hall before the building was closed and sold off to a businessman.

Besides the fact that the bottle store is next to a school, Kaqankase complains that the youth had expected the council to keep the building for recreational use.

Bhabha says the buyer of the premises never indicated that he would open a liquor outlet and that only the provincial administration had the authority to deal with liquor licence applications.

An estimated 70% of Ventersdorp’s citizens are unemployed — the biggest challenge facing the government.

The town is situated in what used to be the Western Transvaal and the economy is heavily reliant on agriculture and a handful of industries. In the past two years the biggest investment in the town has been the establishment of an OK supermarket. Other than that, Bhabha says, there are some basic micro-economic development projects.

Ventersdorp’s integrated development plan aims to reduce unemployment by 25% by 2006 by establishing at least 10 emerging farmers a year and marketing the area and its products. Bhabha says the council is committed to ensuring that every council project is labour intensive.

The council is currently trying to raise R12-million to repair its potholed roads to create jobs and develop infrastructure. But so far only R2-million has been made available by the North West government, Bhabha says.

He adds that plans to build up to 2 000 new low-cost houses have just been finalised.

The council claims that it provides free basic water, although residents deny the claims. Council administrator Jaco van der Merwe said the council does not have the resources to provide free electricity. For poverty-stricken residents who cannot afford to pay their rates, the council has an indigent policy, but resident Cornelius Mokgethi claims that this serves a disproportionate number of white residents because most township residents are unaware that such a policy exists.

For residents who owe the council money there is no recourse. Bhabha explains the council’s “60-40” policy of debt management where a resident buys R10 worth of electricity, but only receives R4 worth with the R6 channeled into his/her arrears. The average rate of payment for services is 50%.

“There is no economic development and I want to ask this council: ‘In five years where do they see service delivery improving and economic development happening?’ The problem is that when you ask too many questions you are labelled a political opponent,” says Mokgethi, who also complains that there are no ward committees in operation and therefore no platform for residents to air their views on governance.

Meanwhile, Schalkwyk is inconsolable: “When we elected these people they promised to look after us and to eradicate poverty but they destroy a poverty eradication project! The other three women have given up and only two of us are left to battle the council. This place breaks my heart.”

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane

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