“This municipality collapsed under the ANC, unfortunately. If you want to get an idea of how, you just have to look at Moses Kotane Stadium, in Zamdela. It has come apart, brick by brick.”
Pakie Letsie is pensive as he sits at the al fresco tables at the Nando’s in the centre of Sasolburg, eating lunch with his comrade Mashel Semonyo. Letsie is the SACP’s regional secretary in this northern Free State town, while Semonyo – a former ward councillor of the ANC – is now the SACP’s Ward 8 and mayoral candidate.
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He is one of a number of former ANC local functionaries at odds with the party, and have thrown their lot in with the communist party in a by-election that could be remembered as the beginning of the end of the tripartite alliance.
The roads leading into and out of the centre of town are covered with potholes and faded lane lines, surrounded by unkempt pavements and uncut grass, just some of the many signs of the infrastructural neglect that is the hallmark of Sasolburg, the seat of the Metsimaholo local municipality.
The town’s road infrastructure is one of the only unifying factors between the affluent suburbs and the centre of town, both still largely white, and the black townships on the outskirts. In Sasolburg, the roads are atrocious wherever you are.
The stadium, Letsie continues, is the perfect microcosm of the neglect and collapse of infrastructure, on which millions had previously been spent.
Most people you speak to say the crisis that has engulfed the municipality since last year’s local government elections began in 2013 when the government attempted to incorporate it into the Ngwathe municipality, uniting it with neighbouring Parys.
In scenes reminiscent of the standoff between the government and residents of Khutsong in 2006, Sasolburg – and Zamdela township in particular – exploded into chaotic protests. Schools were shut, the few residents who actually had jobs stayed away, and the streets were littered with burning debris.
Moses Kotane became a meeting place and the centre of the residents’ resistance, a symbol of the wide chasm that was then opening between the citizenry and its political leadership. If anything, its decline as a public asset since those days, mirrors the worsening state of governance in Metsimaholo after 2013.
“We need roads, we need infrastructure. We need permanent jobs. Service delivery basically stopped in 2013, when they started discussing the merger with Parys,” says Armstrong Likobo, a local EFF branch secretary.
The instability from 2013 spread, and as the township residents’ feud with the municipality simmered and spread, it softened support for the ruling ANC, which could not hold on to the municipality in the 2016 local government elections. An opposition coalition formed a local government, but the instability and governance decline continued. The failure of that coalition to pass its budget eventually led to this week’s by-election.
A common refrain for Metsimaholo residents is the high levels of unemployment. This is exacerbated by inward migration into the area, as Free State rural dwellers move to the province’s second largest economy in search of better opportunities.
“After the vote we want jobs. Corruption and crime is too much because people here are hungry,” says Nhlanhla “Lucky” Msimang, as he waits to vote at the Tsatsi Primary School in Zamdela.
He hasn’t had a job since 2011, although his unemployment status is technically much longer than that, as he says he was released from prison in 2011 after serving a 15-year sentence for unspecified “terrible things”.
It is a story repeated in hundreds of municipalities across the length and breadth of South Africa. Research released just months before last year’s municipal polls showed that 60% of the country’s municipalities were in financial dire straits, with little hope of meeting the service delivery obligations suggested in party manifestos. The study, by financial ratings agency Ratings Afrika, cast aspersions on the financial sustainability of even the wealthiest municipalities, such as Tshwane and Johannesburg.
The worst performing municipalities were found in the Free State and North-West provinces. Ratings Afrika said these municipalities had huge liquidity shortfalls and were probably commercially insolvent.
The political parties vying to take over the municipality this week all have ideas about how to turn around the fortunes of the town. All pleaded with voters to give them an unequivocal mandate, to avoid the instability and uncertainty of coalition-making.
Likobo says the EFF will ensure local SMMEs will be given land to eliminate one of the biggest costs stifling small businesses in the area, high rentals. The party also wants the four biggest employers in the municipality to build a skills centre, to equip locals with the skill required by industry and fight unemployment.
The DA says for its part, it will focus on ending corruption and cronyism, which it sees as the largest flaw of the of previous ANC administrations. The party also wants to focus on education and skilling, suggesting a local bursary scheme for youngsters, to deal with the area’s 60 percent youth unemployment rate.
The ANC is convinced that the collapse of the government is a direct result of its exclusion in 2016. The ruling party pulled out all the stops to persuade residents to give it an outright majority again. Ward 13 candidate Fikile Mosokweni says the party is lobbying various government departments to place satellite offices in the municipality to deal with crisis areas, such as housing and health. And like all the parties, youth education and skilling are a big part of the party’s plans for Metsimaholo.
The SACP wants to strengthen and support co-operatives. It says this is the only way to defeat corruption by rejecting the tender system, while also ensuring local public works help to rebuild public infrastructure, and also benefit local residents by giving the work to locally-owned cooperatives.
There is no guarantee that any of these parties are likely to be given an outright mandate to pursue their manifestos, given the continued fracturing of South African politics at municipal level. But a municipality whose name marks it as “a place of great water” could use a stabilising bridge over its own troubled waters.
Amy Musgrave and Vukani Mde are founding partners at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy