Wild, Wild North West: Mayor freed as tensions continue in Ditsobotla

Daniel Buthelezi, the mayor of the Ditsobotla Municipality in the North West, is unharmed after being held hostage at a council building in Lichtenburg that was set alight on Wednesday night.

The mayor and his two bodyguards were freed following an ordeal in which at least 32 community members forced Buthelezi to remain inside his office until he committed to delivering basic services.

According to Jacqueline Theologo, the Democratic Alliance chief whip in the North West, residents were so concerned about the state of service delivery in the area that they threatened to set themselves alight.

“The group threatened to set themselves alight out of sheer desperation for their concerns to be heard. They had a long list of grievances and complaints about poor service delivery in Ditsobotla,” Theologo said.

The DA last night called for calm in the area and for police to handle the situation peacefully. The party condemned the hostage-taking as lawlessness.

Community safety MEC Mpho Motlhabane said on Thursday that Buthelezi is now being kept at a safe place following the dramatic events of Wednesday night. 

“The mayor is resting at a safe place. We are here to view the damage cost. The chamber is gone, offices are damaged,” Motlhabane said after a visit to the Ditsobotla municipal offices in Lichtenburg

Motlhabane refuted claims that the mayor was held hostage to demand service delivery, but instead said residents wanted projects in the Integrated Development Plan (IDP) to be fast-tracked to the 2017-18 financial year instead of the 2018-19 period.

The residents who held the mayor hostage live in Boikhutso, also known as Phola, near Lichtenburg. According to municipal spokesperson Pius Batsile, the group had entered into the mayor’s office to demand a meeting but were unsatisfied with his responses. 

“The group of about 35 residents came in and demanded a meeting with the mayor, which he agreed to. When they did not agree to his explanation they asked everyone to leave and held him hostage,” said Batsile.

All offices in the building except one belonging to Buthelezi were evacuated. Police attempted to negotiate with hostage takers, but an agreement was not reached. The community members reportedly stood firm and told police that Buthelezi must bring in his executives so that their demands could be met. 

During the course of events, council chambers were torched, but the flames were extinguished before the damage could reach the rest of the building.

Hours after taking the mayor hostage, residents left in two minibus taxis, with the mayor in one of them, after hostage negotiators allowed them to leave. According to police spokesperson Brigadier Sabata Mokgwabone, police intercepted the hostage takers soon after and made 32 arrests.

“Police pounced on them just a few streets away from the municipal offices and 32 residents between the ages of 24 and 52 were arrested,” said Mokgwabone. 

Buthelezi’s return to safety in the early hours of Thursday and the arrests have not restored total calm to the area, however.

On Thursday morning, municipal workers were barred from entering council buildings. The SABC reports that workers have been ordered not to report for duty. It’s unclear who made the order.

The 32 arrested residents will soon appear in court on charges of kidnapping, arson, and attempted murder. 

Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.
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