Maluti-a-Phofung awaits court decision on Eskom cuts

Highway Junction, a trucker’s resting area outside the central business district of Harrismith in Maluti-a-Phofung, is buzzing with its core business: truckers and their hulking vehicles.

“This is not a nice place during the day,” says resident Frik Neethling, who has crunched numbers here for 18 years. “It is quiet, but at night this place turns into a little town.”

Highway Junction sees more than 1 000 trucks a day. The newly built OK Express store serves what Neethling calls “high-quality meals”. It is hemmed in by a fence and patrolling dog handlers.

But the main differentiator from the surrounding residential area is the 500 kva generator —a recent addition to deal with the problems the town has been facing.

“Our pumps can’t run without power, so we keep a generator on site,” says Neethling. “Some months we have power cuts twice a month, and others, nothing.”

The Harrismith Business Forum, a group consisting of more than a dozen business groups in Harrismith, has named President Cyril Ramaphosa as a respondent in an application appealing to the Free State division of the high court for an order that will intervene in the threatened electricity cuts by Eskom.

Eskom has threatened power cuts across the municipality for unpaid bills amounting to almost R3-billion, bills unpaid since 2011.

“It’s not nice to see your town falling apart,” says Neethling. “There is refuse lying all over the town. There is no sewage maintenance, so there are frequent water cuts. A month and a half ago, there was no water for three days until Nestlé supplied money to clean the water.”

The residents of Harrismith’s Intabazwe township argue about which cuts are more frequent: electricity or water.

Phuthaditjhaba, the seat of its municipality, represents homeland underdevelopment and municipal dysfunction.

Here reside the people scapegoated for the municipality’s inability to pay Eskom and other services. Its top officials have fortified themselves against the residents.

On the day of our visit, there is panic about the arrival of the sheriff to attach movable assets. Some officials operate inside locked offices.

“Subjudice” is a term applied liberally when we knock on doors, seeking promised answers to written questions. But the paranoia seems to be a hangover from the chaos of months past.

Officials say the placing of the municipality under administration is already beginning to bear fruit.

“The previous mayor, Vusi Tshabalala, would tell the municipal manager what to do,” says South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) chair Siphiwe Manyoni. “But now third parties [medical aids and pension funds] are being paid in full.

“There is an ongoing process of resolving litigations against the municipality, and people who were illegally transferred to other departments [as a form of political marginalisation] have been returned to their original departments.”

Samwu embarked on a three-month strike in March last year, which heightened the municipality’s dysfunction last August. But this preceded revelations of a December jobs-for-votes scandal when 200 workers were employed solely to boost votes for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s 2017 campaign for the ANC presidency. It remains to be seen whether internal ANC divisions might return to hamper the steady gains of a clean-up by the department of co-operative governance.

READ MORE: ‘Jobs for votes’ scandal rocks ANC

Hope is in short supply in Phuthaditjhaba. The scale of municipal neglect rubs shoulders with the ceaseless ambition of capital. In the Setsing section of the town, the scaffolding of a mall construction project looks stark against the crammed streets of the market complex.

Says resident Pitso Noe: “In some cases, roads have not been repaired since the homeland days. Also, where will this electricity come from if they say the people had over connected?”

Administrator Moses Moremi agrees with the despairing Noe, saying the municipality had “totally collapsed, with transformers burning left, right and centre” by the time government wrestled back control of the municipality. Asked whether an intervention could have come sooner, he says: “A municipality is an autonomous entity,” echoing Ramaphosa. “But this time, there was too much pressure from the community and industrial action by employees. But since the intervention, we’ve sent letters to creditors and reduced some of the contracts.”

Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011.

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