Towns that are jewels in a dusty crown
Unemployment and other ills still exist, but these councils have fixed what they can, writes Julian Rademeyer

ADECADE ago, Morojaneng in Dewetsdorp was like most forgotten rural townships in the Free State: bleak, dusty and filthy, a place where hopes were dashed and dreams died. Few had access to water, decent sanitation or electricity.

But in the past five years the township has begun to bloom.

Last year the Naledi Local Municipality — which incorporates the towns of Dewetsdorp, Wepener and Van Stadensrus — came third in a national “cleanest town” competition. The neighbouring Mantsopa Local Municipality has also racked up a host of awards and is regarded as the jewel in the Free State’s tarnished local government crown.

Both municipalities are an opposition politician’s nightmare. There is virtually no corruption, basic services are largely on track and most councillors seem committed to serving their community’s needs. There are no signs of the greed, apathy and political expediency that have crippled so many other ANC-dominated municipalities in the province.

Along a rutted dirt road in Morojaneng, 80km from Bloemfontein, is a patch of green, bordered by flower beds sprouting bursts of orange, red and white. In the centre of the tiny park is a thatched gazebo. A group of children, giggling conspiratorially, stand in the shade.

A year ago, this was a flyblown no-man’s land.

Mary Chaka, 48, a shop assistant and cashier at the local Pep Stores branch, lives across the street. “It was an illegal dumping site. It was so dirty. I couldn’t take it any more.”

With the help of her husband and teenage daughters she set about clearing the area. “I like cleanliness and that’s why I got involved.” They bought flowers and grass and constructed the gazebo. She approached the municipality for help. “Those people are really good. We work well together and they gave me water for nothing. If they hadn’t helped this wouldn’t have been possible.”

All she needs now is the money to buy a swing and a jungle-gym. “There isn’t really a place here for our children to play, and that’s what I want to do.”

In the surrounding streets, fruit trees have taken root in gardens and rust-red dirt has been replaced with grass. There are hedges and flowers.

With the support of the municipality, its environmental officers and ward councillors, residents have developed a passion for their town.

Belina Winkel, 75, is hard at work. Using discarded sweet wrappers, bits of wire, foil and paint, she makes intricate, garish “flowers” which she sells as ornaments to visitors. In her hands, the detritus of the streets takes on new shapes.

“We are doing well here,” she says. “The municipality and the councillors are good to us and we work well with them.”

It is a common refrain.

Thato Khoase’s two-way radio crackles to life. “It keeps me in touch and saves money. Cellphones cost too much for a municipality of this size,” the 32-year-old municipal manager says. “If there is a problem that needs my attention, I can be reached easily.

“We are under-resourced and in Naledi we service more than 8000 households with only 140 personnel, including administrative staff and myself. There are only 70 general workers for three towns, so our employees have to go the extra mile and we have to keep motivating them.”

Despite the municipality’s achievements, Khoase is at pains to point out that life is far from idyllic. “I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. There are a lot of challenges facing us. Most of our people are indigent.”

On the glass door of the municipal offices is a list of cellphone numbers for key municipal officials. Khoase’s is among them. The list is signed: “Yours in effective service delivery.”

With the exception of the financial head, who is nearing retirement, the people driving the municipality are all aged between 25 and 35. Khoase, who began his working life as a taxi driver before studying commerce at Vista University in Bloemfontein, was teaching at the Metsi Maphodi High School in Morojaneng when he was approached to join the municipality.

His home overlooks the township. “I can see everything from here and people know where to find me,” he says.

Mayor Poloko Setlae, also a former teacher at the school, is the same age as Khoase. “We saw that the Free State was in chaos, with underperforming municipalities, but this one has proven, with all these young people, that it can be done,” she says. “Why is it so difficult for the others?”

It has been an uphill battle. The machinery, equipment, tractors, graders and trucks at the municipality’s disposal are old and in poor condition. Efforts to attract skilled staff have been frustrated because “they don’t want to stay in a rural area”.

Unemployment is widespread. Drug abuse and alcoholism are high.

In 2000, when transitional local councils in each of the towns were amalgamated into the Naledi Local Municipality, the backlogs seemed almost overwhelming.

Only 40% of all households had access to water, just 20% had water-borne sanitation, 35% had electricity, 15% had access to proper main roads and only 20% had door-to-door refuse collection.

By January this year — according to data provided by the municipality — 90% of all households had water-borne sanitation, and funding had been obtained to deal with the remaining 10% by the end of the financial year. All had access to clean, potable water, 91% had access to electricity, all had door-to-door refuse removal and 60% had access to proper main roads.

The mayor lives three blocks from the municipality’s offices. Her neighbour is the town’s Democratic Alliance representative, former Afrikaans radio music presenter Frikkie Oosthuizen.

“I’m enjoying it here. I am the only opposition member on the council but I must be honest, we have a very good working relationship,” he says. “It’s a friendly one. We are working together for the community. If you make your case in council, the ANC councillors listen to it because they realise that we are all here to serve the residents.”

Despite their achievements, only one of the seven ANC ward councillors remains on the party’s election list. The mayor, despite apparently gaining a majority of votes in her ward, has also been excluded from the list. In the town there are dark mutterings that the councillors were effectively purged for failing to throw their support behind the dominant faction led by the ANC’s long-standing Free State chairman, Ace Magashule.

Oosthuizen sums up the concerns: “Essentially you currently know what you have and you don’t know what you’re going to get. We have people who have experience and now you’re going to get a whole lot of new people with no experience. I think the mayor did good work here.”

Ladybrand is at the heart of the Mantsopa Municipality. Its proximity to Lesotho makes it something of an anomaly in a province where many platteland towns are struggling to survive. The town’s economy is growing fast — some say it outstrips the national growth rate.

The town’s Itumeleng Liba is one of the longest serving municipal managers in the province. “What’s important in a municipality like this is how you handle the small things. That immediately determines the reaction of your public towards you.

“You must really have an interest in your community and what is happening there. And you have to be a jack of all trades.”

Dickie Olivier, a DA councillor and local government candidate, is having a hard time finding ammunition for his campaign. “It is so funny that one of our posters says ‘Stop Corruption’, because there isn’t any here.”

Astonishingly, in 10 years, the council has only once been forced to take a vote on an agenda item, and that was whether meetings should be opened with prayer. “It was approved,” says Olivier. In every other instance, matters are decided by consensus. “If we don’t agree, the item is sent back and we look at it again.

“Really, we are very lucky. The priorities are right.”

There has been only “one drama” that he can recall. “The Speaker placed an order for T-shirts worth R70000 for a function without obtaining proper authorisation. But the ANC shot him down, saying there was no way they were going to allow it. We, as the DA, didn’t have to say a thing. Shortly afterwards he was out of his post.”

Article by: Julian Rademeyer - www.sundaytimes.co.za