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Andries Tatane’s forgotten village

Almost two years after Andries Tatane was shot and killed during a service delivery protest, the residents of Ficksburg have lost interest in the ongoing case of the seven policemen accused of his murder.

But their woes continue, as rubbish piles up and sewage runs in their streets. The 2011 census shows that Setsoto Municipality, headquartered in Ficksburg, has nearly 14000 bucket toilets in its 218 000 households.

The slate mausoleum that marks Tatane's grave is fenced off from the rest of the town's new cemetery. Next door is a truck garage and depot. Dried flowers lie by the graveside in a plastic cool-drink bottle. In the distance, backed by the stark mountains of Lesotho, is the community he fought and ultimately died for – Meqheleng.

Ficksburg's grid-pattern streets and ancient traffic lights make sure everything proceeds at a leisurely pace.

In the centre of town, just off the main street with its statue of Commandant General J Fick, town founder and a veteran of the Basutoland War, sits the court. It is a small building and its four banks of seats are more than enough for the small group of people attending the trial. Gone are the crowds of angry people chanting outside. Now the court is sprinkled with journalists on one side and family, friends and police officers on the other.

The journalists frantically record every detail of the prosecution's case, led by advocate Sello Mathloko. Reporters send tweets to keep the outside world up to date, ignoring the sign directing them to please switch their cellphones off. On the other side, Tatane's family sits in one row, closest to the witnesses and just behind the accused. Most of their shoulders are slumped.

Endless postponements
The case has been going on for nearly two years, with endless postponements. The prosecution's case has centred on trying to prove that the accused policemen were the same ones in three videos that were shot on April 13 2011, the day of the protest.  

The court proceedings are slow, with testimony having to be translated into Sesotho.

On Tuesday morning, 15 minutes into the day, the prosecution rests its case. Advocate Johan Nel asks for a postponement to Friday so that he can get his witnesses ready.

Standing in the dark corridor outside the court, Tatane's uncle, David Ntholi, says the case has been going on for far too long, but he is philosophical about it. "We are not angry with anything because we are just waiting for justice to happen," he says, shrugging his shoulders.

There is a problem identifying which policeman shot Tatane. "All you can see is the police beating him, but not the shot." As a result, the prosecutor has told him that the family should not expect a positive outcome. "I don't see it going our way."

He has been to court every day of the case and says a lack of leadership in the community led to outrage over the trial dying away. "There is nobody organising the community now, so you don't see them protesting or coming to court."

Mod cons and paved roads
The family then starts the long walk back to Meqheleng. Situated at the top of a hill outside Ficksburg, the community is in a kink in the Caledon River that juts into Lesotho. Cattle and sheep roam the streets and nearby hills, with herders in close attendance.

The extremes in service delivery are profound: some sections have all the mod cons and paved roads, whereas others have dirt yards with pit toilets, or use buckets.

In the old section of Meqheleng, Nele Mathwase sits outside his house on a folding stool. Leaning on his walking stick, he says he was born in 1920. His small red-brick house, which faces the metal bridge that serves as a border with Lesotho, was built when he moved in with his late wife.

Service delivery to this section is decent, with a tap and a flush toilet in each yard. But Nele says he has been on the list for an RDP house for a long time now.

The 93-year-old also has trouble making his pension last the whole month. "By the third week, I have nothing for food," he says.

Further up the hill, Tatane's grandfather, Peter, sits on a chair in his neat yard, peeling peaches. He says service delivery is a real problem for the community and bemoans the time the case is taking: "I am sick and tired of this."  

Liphanane Molipa, a friend, stops by and joins the conversation, saying Tatane was "a deep politician". One of his aims was to try to get street names for the community, so the police and ambulance service could know where to go and respond quickly, he says.

Forgotten by government
Molipa, who was in exile in Lesotho during apartheid, says the town has been forgotten by the South African government. "This was one of the most important towns for the ANC during exile, but now it is one of the poorest."

He points out parts of Meqheleng where things are particularly bad. To get to these sections requires some tricky driving to get through the huge culverts that drain every road. Public works teams in blue or orange overalls fight to keep these clear of rubbish and sand. The members of one of these teams says that, although they are supposed to get R70 a day, when it comes to payday, they are paid in food instead.

At lunchtime, students from the local secondary school spill out of class to get snacks and sneak a smoke. In one corner, vegetables grow in a food garden and greenhouse. And across the road, diggers are tearing into the rocky earth to build a new athletics track and sports centre.

But a few streets down, sewage is running down the side of the road. And down a side street pitted with dongas, the smell of faeces is strong. Sitting under a tree cleaning her dishes, Matidiso Rankane points to her toilet. It has a bucket.

"I have nothing else to use, even if we were told we would have new toilets that worked," she says.

Her neighbour, Maphery Kwalipe, is busy cutting up peaches so she can dry and sell them. With her husband dead, this is her only way of making money. A new toilet sits locked at the back of her yard, next to her neat vegetable garden. But it does not work, so she has to use the bucket toilet at the bottom of her small yard.

Slow delivery
The black bucket has four planks nailed together to form a seat, and rusted corrugated-iron walls. Where the door should be, she has strung up a black plastic bag for privacy. Flies hover around the bucket and the smell is pungent. A strong breeze from across the valley carries it across the neighbourhood. While she is talking, her neighbours congregate, eager to tell their toilet story and show their buckets.

"My toilet does not work, so what must I do now? I have to use this bucket even if it smells or everyone can see me," she says. Further up the street, people have new RDP houses, but the slab for hers has been sitting there for five years. Her corrugated-iron house needs rocks to keep the roof on and newspapers on the wall to insulate it from the cold winters.

At the very bottom of Meqheleng's hill, next to the Lesotho border, houses have pit toilets. Mpho Putsane, mother of a seven-month-old baby, says delivery has been slow in her area. The toilet is well built, with a pipe at the back for ventilation. But it has no easy access point for emptying and these kinds of toilets fill up within a few years.

She was surprised the Tatane case was still going on. "But it started so long ago," she says. Like many others, she appears to have lost interest.

A municipal spokesperson was not immediately available to answer questions.

The memory of Tatane may have faded in this community, but the problems he sought to highlight still exist. There is just nobody left to fight them.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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