Free State residents put down their pens and take to the streets

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

Protests started in Ficksburg and spread within hours to Fouriesburg and Clocolan, with taxi associations and farmers’ groups blocking all traffic into and out of the towns. From Moneyweb.

The road to Bethlehem. Image: Supplied
The road to Bethlehem. Image: Supplied

Taxi associations, farmers’ groups, businesses and community members blocked roads into and out of Ficksburg in the Free State on Wednesday in protest against the “deadly” state of roads in the area.

The protests quickly spread to the neighbouring towns of Fouriesburg and Clocolan. Protest organisers from all sections of the community say their genteel letter-writing campaigns came to nought, so they decided to take to the streets and bring the towns to a standstill.

The protests appear to have yielded immediate dividends: Free State MEC for Police, Roads and Transport Sam Mashinini was on the scene within hours to hear the residents’ complaints. He got first-hand insight into what has riled the local residents when he had to navigate his vehicle through 18 kilometres of what residents describe as one of the worst roads in the country.

“We’re not talking about potholes,” says Ficksburg resident Bruno Muller. “These are volcanos.”

Mashinini promised to commence repair work on the three most problematic roads by Monday next week, overseen by the province’s chief road engineer. The poor state of the roads has resulted in several avoidable deaths, according to one of the protest organisers, Selloane Lephoi.

Non-political community action

The protest organisers were determined to keep political parties and politicians well away from what they say is a completely non-political campaign that has the full support of the community.

According to one protest organiser, Laiki Coccosulis, roads in the area have fallen into such a state of disrepair that up to 90 vehicles a week are damaged due to potholes that have been neglected for years.

“Dozens of heavy tankers and trucks use this road every day on their way to Lesotho, yet the municipal budget for road maintenance is a ridiculous R4 million a year – which in any event has been redirected for PPE [personal protective equipment].

“What we are very proud of is that all sections of the community were involved, and there was not a single incidence of violence,” says Coccosulis.

“This was a peaceful protest, but we decided we had to get the attention of the authorities.”

Adds community organiser Morgan Barrett: “We are not looking for confrontation. We met with the MEC and we came up with suggestions on what projects to prioritise, and how best to fix the most urgent problems. Our objective was to open the channels of communication with the provincial government, which I believe we’ve done.”

Action promised

So far, the talk has been productive – but residents want to see this translated into action. The provincial roads department has promised to have its maintenance teams on site by Monday next week.

If not, the protests are likely to be stepped up a notch.

Ficksburg lies within the Setsoto Local Municipality, part of the wider Thabo Mofutsanyana district that includes the towns of Clarens, Harrismith and Bethlehem. It’s a beautiful part of the country, surrounded by mountains and rich farming land, with plenty potential for tourism.

Ficksburg hosts an annual Cherry Festival as a way of attracting visitors to the town, but residents say the decrepit state of the town’s infrastructure is a turn-off for tourists.

Municipality’s financials

The Auditor-General has issued qualified audit opinions on Setsoto for the last two financial years that are available (to June 2019). The latest report found that the municipality made a loss of R644 million for the year to June 2019 and deducted PAYE from employees’ salaries, but held back paying over R12.6 million of this.

It also owed R25 million to Eskom, up from R15 million the previous year.

There was also unauthorised expenditure of R616 million and irregular expenditure of R76.9 million.

Read: AG: How to improve the state of our municipalities (Jul 2020)

Some road repairs are being done in the town of Ficksburg, but these amount to “filling potholes with gravel so now we have bumpy patched surfaces,” says Coccosulis.

Setsoto is regarded as one of the most dysfunctional municipalities in the Free State, with residents complaining of sewage spilling into primary schools in the area, and broken water pipes going unrepaired for weeks – quite apart from the dilapidated roads.

Parallel local government set up

Selloane Lephoi is director of Ficksburg My Home, which has been set up as a parallel local government to repair and maintain local infrastructure that is neglected by the municipality.

“We’re taking over functions from the municipality in a way that does not require us to go to court and fight battles that may take years to resolve,” she says.

“We clean up litter, fix broken pipes and leaking sewage systems, and then we will present the municipality with the bill.”

Does the municipality have the money to pay? “It might take a long time, but yes, they will have to pay,” says Lephoi.

“We do rely on funding from local businesses and concerned residents, but in the end we will get the municipality to refund us.”

As to the legality of this approach, Lephoi says the Constitution of the Republic of SA obligates the municipality to deliver services paid for by ratepayers. “If the municipality cannot perform the role it is constitutionally required to do, and the residents do it on their behalf, it is perfectly legal to by-pass it and present them with the bill afterwards.”

Crime is down, says group

By clearing out overgrown brush in and around the town which served as cover for criminals, Ficksburg My Home says it has been able to reduce the town’s crime rate.

In other parts of the country, residents have taken over water and sewage services from the local municipality, in one case with the blessing of the high court, while others are engaged in a ratepayers’ revolt.

In January 2020, history was made when the Makhanda High Court in Grahamstown ordered the dissolution of the Makana Local Municipality and an administrator be appointed to run its affairs.

Ficksburg residents say they are aware of these different campaigns to restore responsible local government, but have decided on a different route: protest action, running a parallel municipality, and engagement with the provincial leaders.

Where to now

Setsoto is presently without a municipal manager, a post that is currently covered by the chief financial officer. The law requires municipal managers to have specific skills, and acting municipal managers may only act for a period of three months, unless this period is extended by the provincial MEC.

Lephoi says residents long ago ceased to participate in the drafting of the Integrated Development Plan (IDP) for the town, as their voices were ignored.

“We have a situation where an IDP agreed upon by a few dozen people in local government gets approved over the heads of tens of thousands of residents. No one is listening to them. This is now going to change.

“In the next few weeks, we – the residents of Ficksburg – will be presenting our own IDP with suggestions on how to fix the problems in the town, and we will make sure our voices are heard.”

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Ciaran Ryan

The Writer's Room is a curated by Ciaran Ryan, who has written on South African affairs for Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Financial Mail, Finweek, Noseweek, The Daily Telegraph, Forbes, USA Today, Acts Online and Lewrockwell.com, among others. In between he manages a gold mining operation in Ghana, and previously worked in Congo. Most of his time is spent in the lovely city of Joburg.