Tatane Project: The more they stay the same…
Promises made amid protests three years ago ring hollow in Balfour
A board, clearly visible through the palisade fence surrounding the Dipaleseng municipal offices in Balfour, makes a bold statement: “Stupidity is not a disability.”
One could be forgiven for thinking this municipality in Mpumalanga, on the border with Gauteng, offers a first-class service if they can afford to advertise with such no-nonsense vigour.
Instead, this is an institution arguably on the brink of collapse.
Deteriorating governance, lack of capacity and internal political squabbles have put the brakes on basic service provision.
The violent protests by residents of Siyathemba township in 2009 and 2010, in an attempt to force government to speed up service delivery, seem to have faded from politicians’ memories.
At the height of the protests, President Jacob Zuma visited Balfour and promised to turn the municipality around.
Ministers, MECs and their retinues followed in his wake, dispatched to Balfour to fix service-delivery backlogs.
But the problems with sporadic water supply, frequent electricity outages, impassable roads, incorrect low-cost home allocations, inaccessible healthcare, invisible policing, and shortages of skills training and education persist.
The residents’ other demand was to be re-demarcated into Gauteng, which they argued would solve some of their concerns, including access to nearby hospitals, and further education and training colleges.
Two years later, residents are yet to see any urgent action from councillors and municipal officials to realise Zuma’s promises. TheDipaleseng council still hasn’t appointed a municipal manager and directors.
Since last November, camps within the council and the ANC’s Gert Sibande regional executive committee have been bickering over who should be appointed and the municipal manager’s post has been advertised three times.
Zakhele Maya (28) – an eloquent, snazzily dressed young man who was among the instigators of the protests – is livid. He believes the ANC has more to answer to regarding the stagnation in the municipality than the councillors.
He said: “Yes, we have a dysfunctional council but the source of the problem is the ANC, which insists on imposing their own people in municipal positions.
“This council is in the middle of its term but has failed to do a simple thing (like) appoint a municipal manager. How can an institution run without bureaucrats?
This means we have a municipality in a state of collapse.”
When City Press visited Dipaleseng in March, brown sludge trickled out of the taps instead of water, and the supply was erratic.
Our latest visit this month revealed little has changed. Residents sometimes go without water for two weeks and electricity outages are frequent.
Change is noticeable only on a few streets that have been paved, but the main tar road is still riddled with potholes. There are also high-mast lights that have been installed but some are no longer functioning, while others stay switched on day and night.
Jobs are still scarce and last month’s closure of the local Burnstone Gold Mine – owing to its failure to produce the amount of gold its owners expected – has shattered the dreams of many of Siyathemba’s youth who had hoped the mine’s recruitment policy would prioritise them instead of “outsiders”.
More than 1 000 jobs were shed by Great Basin Gold – the Canadian company that owns Burnstone.
The road linking Balfour and Siyathemba was tarred, but residents said it is of such poor quality, the tar melts on hot days.
“Look around and tell me if you see any difference,” Maya said, shaking his head, before adding an ominous warning: “The municipality is still moving at as slow a pace as before. I’m afraid something drastic might happen again.”
Amid all these unresolved problems, Dipaleseng mayor Sarah Nhlapho’s council has been causing more damage, including evicting pupils of Balfour Primary School from the municipal hall, where some classes were moved to when the school’s numbers grew too big.
Balfour Primary’s deputy principal, Thabo Pole, said: “We renovated that hall, which we’ve been using over the last five years. The council chased us out without a reason.
“It seems they don’t care about the children’s education.”
But it’s not only the municipality that is not listening to him. The Mpumalanga education department isn’t listening either.
The pupils – including two classes in Grade 1 and one in Grade 2 – are now crammed into a nearby resident’s single garage, the only option they have.
It’s only a matter of time before they get evicted from there too.