Free State local government councillors have had to face a dressing down by President Thabo Mbeki and the Free State minister for local government, William Kotsoane, after violent community protests against a lack of services.
The popular uprisings started in Ntabazwe township, outside of Harrismith, where police killed a youth, Teboho Mkhonza, after residents demonstrated on the N3. In the past two weeks, the protests spread to the neighbouring towns of Warden, Vrede and Memel — where residents who live in even worse poverty took to the streets.
This week Mbeki and Kotsoane acknowledged that the government had failed to improve the living conditions of these communities, and came down hard on local councillors for not getting essential services up and running. Even the Minister of Provincial and Local Government, Sydney Mufamadi, was moved to remark — at a gathering in Cape Town of the South African Local Government Association — how ridiculous it was that councillors were now saying it was too dangerous to meet with their communities.
Commenting on the situation in Ezenzeleni township, Warden, at the same meeting, Mbeki said: ”Of course, resources are limited, but still, why should stinking buckets not be collected for two weeks? Why are the taps not fixed?
”Has the local leadership raised the problem with other spheres of government and if so, what was the response? Is it true that councillors and officials donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t attend meetings and why?”
Councillors not accounting to their constituencies appears to be the common complaint among residents of the townships that have been gripped by the protests.
Free State legislature local government portfolio chairperson Anna Buthelezi, who visited Harrismith, says that people are not satisfied with the contact their councillors were making with them.
”Residents told us that for them to be heard they had to toyi-toyi to receive attention from the provincial and national government. It appeared that either the ward committees were not working or that those who were protesting were not involved in the committees,” Buthelezi said.
Kotsoane said a preliminary investigative report into the uprisings indicated that there were serious problems of delivery, of poor management and capacity constraints. He is sending a special task team from the department to work with municipal officials in Phumelela municipality, which includes Warden, Vrede and Memel.
But while on the surface the problems are about service delivery, underlying political tensions seem to have fuelled the flames of the conflict.
The perennial political battles for control of the Free State are believed to have inflicted so much damage that they have weakened local government structures such as ward committees. Without an effective channel of communication, communities were left with little option except for violent protests.