â€œThis 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.â€
Pakie Letsie is pensive as he sits at the al fresco tables at Nandoâ€™s restaurant in the centre of Sasolburg, having lunch with his comrade Mashel Semonyo. Letsie is the regional secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP) in this northern Free State town, and Semonyo, a former ward councillor of the ANC, is now the SACPâ€™s ward eight and mayoral candidate.
He is one of a number of former ANC local functionaries at odds with the party, and many others 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 into and out of the centre of town are littered 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 a hallmark of Sasolburg, the seat of the Metsimaholo local municipality.
The townâ€™s road infrastructure is one of the few 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 been spent.
Most people say the crisis that has engulfed the municipality since last yearâ€™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 had jobs stayed away and the streets were littered with burning debris.
The Moses Kotane Stadium became a meeting place and the centre of the residentsâ€™ resistance, a symbol of the wide chasm that was then opening between the citizenry and its political leadership.
If anything, the stadiumâ€™s decline as a public asset since those days mirrors the worsening state of governance in Metsimaholo after 2013.
â€œWe need roads, we need infrastructure. We need permanent jobs. Service delivery basically stopped in 2013, when they started discussing the merger with Parys,â€ says Armstrong Likobo, a local Economic Freedom Fighters branch secretary.
The instability from 2013 spread and, as the township residentsâ€™ 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 weekâ€™s by-election.
A common complaint by the Metsimaholo residents is the high level of unemployment. This is exacerbated by migration into the area, as Free State rural residents move to the provinceâ€™s second-largest economy in search of better opportunities.
â€œAfter the vote, we want jobs. Corruption and crime are too much because people here are hungry,â€ says Nhlanhla â€œLuckyâ€ Msimang, who is waiting to vote at the Tsatsi Primary School in Zamdela.
He hasnâ€™t had a job since 2011, although his unemployment history is much longer than that because he was released from prison in 2011 after serving a 15-year sentence for unspecified â€œterrible thingsâ€.
It is a story repeated in municipalities across the length and breadth of South Africa. Research released just months before last yearâ€™s municipal polls showed that 60% of the countryâ€™s municipalities are 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. Ratings Afrika said these had huge liquidity shortfalls and were probably commercially insolvent.
The political parties vying to take over the municipality this week have ideas about how to turn around the fortunes of the town. All have pleaded with voters to give them an unequivocal mandate, to avoid the instability and uncertainty of a coalition.
Likobo says the EFF will ensure local small and medium enterprises 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 expertise required by industry and to fight unemployment.
The Democratic Alliance says it will focus on ending corruption and cronyism, which it sees as the largest flaw of the previous ANC administrations. The party also wants to focus on education and skills development, suggesting a local bursary scheme for youngsters, to deal with the areaâ€™s 60% 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 ANC 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 improving peopleâ€™s skills are a big part of its plans for Metsimaholo.
The SACP wants to strengthen and support co-operatives. Giving public infrastructure development to locally owned co-operatives will ensure residents get jobs. The party believes that rejecting the tender system will also defeat corruption.
It is unlikely that any party will be given an outright mandate to pursue its manifesto, given the continued fracturing of politics at municipal level. But a municipality whose name marks it as â€œa place of great waterâ€ could use a stabilising bridge over its own troubled waters.