Ficksburg: Lost at the crossroads

“A stokvel, that’s what I call it nowadays. Every month you put money together and at the end of the year, someone steals it and others don’t get anything. Just like a stokvel.”

There is still a righteous indignation to Mosoue Matlala, although the seething anger is gone. Seated across from me in a stuffy smoking section at the Bottling Company, a pub and restaurant in the centre of Ficksburg, he was sounding the death knell on the Meqheleng Concerned Citizens, a group of people whose stature rose after Andries Tatane fell in the centre of town earlier this year.

Tatane’s death, captured on camera, thrust the sleepy border town into prime-time news and became a tangible consequence of suspended police chief Bheki Cele’s unchecked Wild West posturing.

At the time of his death Tatane, an activist who was planning to stand as an independent candidate in the local government elections, was also a member of the Meqheleng Concerned Citizens group. Self-appointed, the group called meetings, organised marches and helped to lift the lid on the unrelenting corruption in the Setsoto Local Municipality, which includes the towns of Clocolan, Senekal, Marquard and the headquarters, Ficksburg. Several key municipal office-bearers, including municipal manager Bafana Mthembu — who had been in office for only a year — were eventually forced to step down.

Matlala, dark in complexion with an athletic build, was among the first to jump ship, apparently over differences in strategy, when Tatane died in the second march. “I tried to tell them that after marching we have to try something else, like going to the public protector or something,” he said over several cigarettes and Coca-Colas.

But even before Tatane’s death on April 13 the citizens’ group was faltering. In March this year 37 municipality employment postings were advertised as vacant. Matlala was the signatory to a letter sent by the group to the “accounting officer” stating that they wanted “intervention and collaboration” in filling 18 of the posts. But, when the letter went public, the group distanced itself from it. Matlala, however, stood by the letter, saying the names – such as that of his cousin who had just come back from prison — were chosen according to circumstance.

A subsequent report commissioned by the Free State government following the death of Tatane confirmed the group’s letter — as well as allegations of corruption in the municipality that the group had brought into the open — but it withheld the names of specific officials despite a call by the Democratic Alliance to disclose them.

Mosoue Matlala: ‘After marching we have to try something else’.

Before the report became public knowledge, Matlala had already accused his comrades of duping the public, noting that some group members had close relations with members of the Free State provincial government, led by Premier Ace Magashule.

On the local community radio station Matlala singled out Molefi Nonyane — who owns a construction company — claiming he used “his involvement in the Meqheleng Concerned Citizens group as a stunt to get a delayed sandstone housing project going again”. Speaking on the phone, Nonyane baulked at the accusations, saying that he had bid against other hopefuls as early as 2008, before the council finally awarded him the project last year.

With eyes fixed on Ficksburg in the wake of Tatane’s slaying, leftists buoyed by a consolidating Democratic Left Front looked at the town as the site of a budding working-class revolution. Andile Mngxitama, the editor of black-consciousness journal New Frank Talk and a co-ordinator at the September National Imbizo, hailed the citizens’ group as an example of a black middle class acting in solidarity with the masses.

But the enthusiasm was premature. Today most residents of Meqheleng, a township outside Ficksburg, perceive the citizens’ group as a toothless organisation led by calculating tenderpreneurs. The group’s will to mobilise and exert meaningful pressure, they said, was neutered by certain individuals’ existing business interests and, in other cases, future aspirations, including controversy around the awarding of the Cherry Jazz Festival contract to a group member.

As for Matlala, his enthusiasm these days is reserved for his table-tennis team. He coaches a nine-member squad comprising mainly under 16s and under 21s.

“At the [annual provincial] OR Tambo games we always get beaten by [the better resourced] Motheo district. We don’t have resources and yet we come second every year.

“If we had, we’d get a place at the nationals and maybe get a professional from this place.” The team has one table sponsored by the municipality. But with no working sports facilities in the township, the team has to set up outside a tavern, on a shaded veranda in case of rain. Expectedly, they are too shy to do warm-ups in front of peers, girlfriends and drinkers.

There is an electric inertia in Meqheleng that suggests fertile ground for revolution. Youths lounge around corners in file formation, as if ready for recruitment. Others sit drinking or walk around in groups, aimlessly.

Likeleli Motete: ‘People enjoy staying drunk. This place is cursed.

“Youth here are not politically active, they want freebies,” said Likeleli Motete, an activist decked out in jeans and a red COP17 T-shirt. “When people think of a business, they only ever open one thing: a tavern. As a result, people enjoy staying drunk. This place is cursed.”

During the local government elections in May several of the youth boycotted voting in Meqheleng, expressing disillusionment with the ANC and mistrust for other parties. The stayaway was not much help to the opposition though. The DA took only one of Ficksburg’s eight wards — the only ward it won in a municipality of 18 wards.

The youth are not the only ones feeling shortchanged in Ficksburg.

I first met Thomas Myburgh, a 57-year-old vendor with a Cape accent, during a protest outside the Ficksburg Magistrate’s Court, while a pre-trial session was being conducted surreptitiously. His poster, written in puffed-out block letters on a white board, read: “ANC, in power for 17 years! We are still roofless, poor, polarised! Living in shacks. No water, toilets and jobs. Police thugs kill us. Not yet uhuru. Freedom oh freedom, we will fight till death.”

When he was younger, Myburgh said, he helped a lot of youth cross the border into Lesotho in the ­apartheid days. “I was a bus driver at the time and I would take them home and hide them in the shack [at the back] and in the evening they would cross over to Lesotho. Do they remember how I risked my life for them?” he asked angrily outside his vegetable and sweets stall off the paved Lekota Street in Meqheleng. “After 17 years no one has come to see if I’m alive. Not one came to my father’s grave to say: ‘You have helped us a lot’.”

Myburgh’s resentment has a lot to do with the fact that he still stays in the same old house where he ostensibly helped others to jumpstart their political careers. “They don’t want to give me an RDP house because I talk too much,” he said. “They wanted a marriage certificate, birth certificates for my children and all those things. There are so many unmarried young men with houses. I’m an elder in this township and I can’t get an RDP house.”

When he referred to Ficksburg as “a small town with a big township with big problems”, he was right. Lesotho’s labour conditions, which allow for comparatively lower wages, means that many industries prefer to operate across the border, giving the town a slightly ghostly look.

The municipality is owed around R300-million by ratepayers for services rendered. Collection rates do not even reach 40%. In Meqheleng collection rates are less than 10%, and Mayor Tsheliso Jacob’s ward in Clocolan has a collection rate of less than 1%.

These numbers were given to the Mail & Guardian by DA councillor Ben du Toit. He received them from a colleague within the municipality’s financial department.

Du Toit said the municipality had never really had a collection system going. “It’s not a popular political decision to collect money when a culture of non-payment is prevalent in some areas,” he said. “In town if you don’t pay for your services, they cut. In the townships they have pre-paid electricity cards.”

At the crossroads: Meqheleng township outside Ficksburg, Free State, has all the usual problems including unemployed youth and bad service delivery.

With little income from ratepayers, the municipality depends on grants from the province to keep going. “There are a lot of people working there while very few are qualified,” he said. “The rest is boeties, sisters, cadres and God knows what. It is just too big a workforce.”

The end result of a bloated, corrupt and ineffective municipality is that Ficksburg is quite obviously pothole country, with roads that look as though they have survived an extinction event. Even in town some sports facilities are decaying havens for squatters and water supply remains erratic.

Meqheleng does not compare. Most of its streets are best navigated by 4×4. In some parts where they do have toilets, the bucket system is still in use.

For Du Toit, many of the town’s problems have to do with the rapid expansion of Meqheleng, partly because of its proximity to Lesotho. “Many take jobs that could belong to South African citizens. They use South African services and many have South African IDs, which they get in whatever fashion.”

It figures that border porosity should bother Du Toit. In the old days he served as a legal officer in the Commandos, which patrolled the border in the interests of minimising stock theft and farm attacks. Du Toit feels that farmers were left vulnerable by their disbanding during Thabo Mbeki’s era.

Despite the times, Ficksburg remains a town where the races walk past one another, as if denying their existence. The body language, be it the wide, unflinching gait of farmers in two-tone gear, the hurried, methodical shuffling of white-robed Asian traders or the cowed postures of the “car guards”, speaks of prevailing power dynamics. Du Toit agreed, somewhat owlishly.

“I have been here for 32 years and the relationship between the races has always been good. There are commonalities between black and white interest groups but segregation happens naturally,” he said. “It’s the cultural stuff that keeps us apart.” He singled out that the DA had more black members than white in the town and that when a tornado struck in October, “all communities, black and white, stood by each other. Central government, provincial government, farmers, churches, Shoprite, Spar — big business put their money where their mouth is. The community realised that we need one another, people have a heart for one another.”

During relief efforts following the tornado, the local Dutch Reformed Church functioned as a disaster and distribution centre. It was an incredible show of sympathy. But in a town where boats never rock — with Tatane’s televised death as the obvious exception — one has to analyse even kneejerk almsgiving.

Could it be an insulated community’s sense of pragmatism, heightened by the sheer numbers that descended from Meqheleng to Voortrekker Street several times this year? Could it be the ANC Youth League’s unsettling talk of land grabs without compensation? Or is it the age-old story of interventionism — Christianity’s civilising white supremacy? Whatever it is, the street kids hanging around the town’s shopping centres, pretending to park cars, now represent a powder keg that cannot be ignored.

When Du Toit spoke of the races needing each other, he was, in fact, speaking of labour-employer relations. When he said the races had always got on in Ficksburg, he meant that the status quo remained. The ineffectiveness of the municipality, even in times of disaster, has only allowed such myopic dogma to thrive.

Support for a friend: Thomas Myburgh joins protesters outside the court during the Andries Tatane murder trial.

For example, what Likeleli Molotsane of Meqheleng’s zone eight remembered of the calamity was that the municipality took her corrugated iron sheets with the promise of bringing her new ones, but never returned. Tears welled up in her eyes and her voice wavered as she indicated that she had to rebuild her shack using borrowed materials and the remaining sheets — with holes in them — for roofing.

Her roof now is merely symbolic. The poles she received from the municipality were initially donated by white farmers, she said. “I don’t want anything from the municipality, just my zincs. I bought them myself,” she said, composing herself and leading me outside her two-room shack.

Several attempts to get a response to questions sent to the municipality went unanswered.

To be young and black in Ficksburg is to walk under a ceiling instead of a sky. A white farmer who delivers milk to a shop owner in Meqheleng said he once encountered a group of young boys floating paper boats along flowing water on the side of one of the township’s untarred roads. As he drove past, he realised from the smell of what they were playing in that it was raw sewage.

However, roads paved in shit does not mean that all young dreamers are dead. It just means that they are connected.

Take 19-year-old Mabenzo, an aspiring radio jock named Ben Mokhemisa. A sidekick to the outspoken DJ Buddha on Setsoto FM’s breakfast show, Mabenzo is a minor celebrity in Ficksburg, already setting his sights on a career in the media.

When I visited him at his mother’s home for scones and Coke, he told me he was keen on studying medicine in Cuba and he was due to go on an orientation trip organised by the premier’s office soon. I asked him how sure he was of netting the bursary. After all, all he could tell me about the Cubans was that “they share everything”, that his maths marks are not that great and that his first love is really information technology.

His answer encapsulated the Ficksburg zeitgeist quite succinctly: “I know I will get it because I will talk to the premier,” he said. “He’s going to send me to Cuba. When he — Ace Magashule — came to receive a memorandum two months ago, I interviewed him and after that I asked him about it.” Magashule could not have been grilled if Mabenzo still had a personal favour to ask.

As quiet and unassuming as the town is, the usual laws of the jungle apply here too. Even though the whites will tell you that “everybody gets along quite well” and the blacks will tell you that “this place is cursed [probably by alcohol]”, the truth is it is about what and who you know if you are black and hanging on to old privilege if you are white.

Whether people want an overhaul here is questionable. To speak of a curse is to rob yourself of your own agency and to believe that everybody gets along is to continue to worship at apartheid’s monolith. As the days turn to months, Tatane’s death seems to have been in vain. What the literal tornado achieved was simply to tap into people’s primal fears. Other than that, Ficksburg continues to be a vulgar society, where municipal officials run amok with impunity, benevolent farmers kill you with kindness and revolution is a false alarm.

Kwanele Sosibo is the Eugene Saldanha fellow in inequality and social justice reporting, supported by CAF Southern Africa

Photos by Madelene Cronjé

View more highlights of the year that was in our special report.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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