The ubiquitous cracked and disembowelled streets seem to point to this instability, but in the township of Tumahole, the absence of tarred roads points to a pervading powerlessness.
The recent farm murder of an elderly couple notwithstanding, Parys, the biggest town in the Ngwathe municipality, came into national focus by proxy when residents in Zamdela in Sasolburg vented their anger over the proposed merger of the Metsimaholo and Ngwathe municipalities.
Although Sasolburg saw brazen displays of anger, Parys residents preferred to grumble anonymously.
Read More on the Sasolburg protests
Although paranoia of notepad-wielding outsiders is generally on the rise in South Africa, it is particularly pointed in Parys, with most people willing to speak only if pseudonyms are used. Members of the town's Parys Development Forum, understood to be waging a court battle with the municipality over the non-delivery of services, would not speak to us without a prearranged appointment.
According to Municipal IQ, the Ngwathe municipality ranks 95 out 226 local municipalities. In the auditor general's 2010-2011 consolidated general report on municipalities, Ngwathe receives a disclaimer, which denotes insufficient appropriate evidence for an auditor's finding. For example, the municipality provides no annual performance report and non-compliance with related legislation is also noted.
A businessperson running a take-away on one of the town's main arteries was very eager to give us a topographical analysis of the water problems facing the town, but only anonymously.
Muddy-tasting, undrinkable water
The hefty, bearded man I will call Jan van Wyk sat us at a table, flipped open his laptop and typed the town's name into Google maps. A contrasting landscape of two towns popped up. There was the more lush scenery to the north, pushing up against the southern bank of the Vaal River and representing Parys proper, and the larger, more barren landscape to the south, which was the sprawling township of Tumahole.
Patches of factories and uninhabited land separate the two worlds. But, if there is one thing that unites them, it is the muddy-tasting, undrinkable water.
A quick drive around the town reveals a tourist magnet in decline. The municipal-owned Mimosa Gardens holiday resort is fast becoming a white elephant, its empty, decaying pool now overgrown.
A story the residents love to tell to reveal the extent of the town's collapse is that when the Jorensia Gardens flats in the centre of town caught fire more than a year ago – it took the fire department about a kilometre away more than 45 minutes to arrive on the scene. Whether the story is accurate or not can perhaps be gauged by the extent of the damage – the whole top floor was gutted.
Ask about the lay of the land in Tumahole and the ritual is the same; you will be handed a glass of water to inspect. The unfinished Fezile Dabi soccer stadium, the Phehhelang Senior Secondary School in disrepair and the bushy patches of vacant land hint at dysfunction. A dumping site at the edge of Mbeki section doubles as a children's playground.
Head down one of the untarred roads and a curious pattern of incomplete RDP houses takes shape. In Mandela section, Maria Leotlela, who has lived on one of the stands since the 1990s, had to move her shack back to accommodate the construction of the two-bedroomed house. Building began in 2011 but stopped a few months later. She was told by the municipality that it would continue in January this year, but nobody arrived.
The municipality could not be reached for comment.