Things fall apart in the ageing Free State gold fields
Illegal mining, failing infrastructure, proliferating cesspools, a broke and heavily indebted municipality — the decay seen in Thabong is spreading
In the township of Thabong in the Free State‚ sewage runs down several roads. Crime has picked up because every single street lamp along its main road has been cut down and sold for scrap‚ leaving residents in darkness.
Thabong forms part of the Matjhabeng municipality‚ which has gained a reputation for being one of the worst-run municipalities in the country.
The reasons for Matjhabeng’s notoriety are visible everywhere in Thabong‚ which is outside Welkom.
Children and adults navigate puddles of wastewater to leave their homes. In some of the more affluent suburbs‚ water leaks spring as if out of nowhere, numbering as many as 400 on some days.
TimesLIVE visited the city of Welkom and its neighbouring gold-mining towns last week and found evidence of a dying local economy‚ with a municipality trying hard to keep the facade from crumbling.
In Welkom central‚ it is not easy to spot the telltale signs of a city in decline‚ but on the outskirts abandoned buildings and stripped-out shops tell a different story.
Smaller towns like Virginia and Odendaalsrus once flourished but are now being abandoned in a slow migration to greener pastures.
There are several places in the Welkom area where pools of sewage have formed as the ageing infrastructure fails.
Since its inception in 2000‚ Matjhabeng has consistently received qualified audit opinions, confirming suspicion among locals of corruption running rampant.
For the past two years‚ however‚ the ship has changed direction. On Friday officials were informed of their second unqualified audit outcome in two years.
But the municipality faces massive challenges in terms of revenue collection and an even more serious threat from a flourishing illegal mining sector.
On average‚ revenue collection only just tops 35%‚ with some wards collecting only 2% of actual billing. Residents and businesses owe the municipality about R2bn.
Government departments are not exempt; the Department of Public Works owes R47m. Another R23m is owed by other departments.
Officials say Matjhabeng mayor Nkosinjane Speelman has received death threats for his efforts to clamp down on illegal mining in the area.
Conservative estimates put the number of miners operating unlawfully in the abandoned shafts in and around Matjhabeng at several thousand. Near Virginia on the outskirts of Welkom‚ eight out of nine gold mines shut down in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
An estimated 100‚000 jobs were lost in the mining sector and support industries based in Welkom.
In September‚ a mine manager for two Harmony Gold shafts near Odendaalsrus‚ Simphiwe Kubheka‚ was shot and killed while driving home.
Harmony Gold would not comment on speculation that Kubheka had been campaigning to drive out illegal miners from several shafts‚ and had previously received death threats.
Speelman has written to the Free State MEC for public safety and to Police Minister Fikile Mbalula for assistance in dealing with the illegal mining syndicates operating in the area.
One municipal official‚ who spoke on condition of anonymity‚ claimed there was evidence of the involvement of local police and affluent residents in illegal mining activity.
"We believe gold is smuggled out through the private airport‚ to Dubai and other places‚" the official said.
An illegal miner TimesLIVE spoke to refused to reveal where they sell their gold in Welkom‚ but claimed to make about R800 on a good day.
According to municipal spokesman Kgojane Matutle‚ illegal mining is costing the municipality millions every month. In several areas water pipes are tapped into for the zama zamas to wash their gold.
"It is a daily occurrence. We send someone to fix a pipe today‚ and tomorrow they break the pipe again‚" Matutle said.
Cable theft is also costing the municipality about R2m every month.
Water Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane last week included Matjhabeng in a list of municipalities that have defaulted on their water bills.
TimesLIVE has established that Matjhabeng owes the Sedibeng Water Board more than R1.9bn and Eskom R1.6bn.
In a reply to questions from DA councillor Piet Botha‚ municipal manager Thabiso Tsoaeli said about R70m of the historical debt had been repaid.
Matjhabeng faces another massive problem: unemployment has resulted in fewer and fewer households being able to afford to pay utilities.
"Child-headed households are also a massive problem. HIV and AIDS has destroyed many families‚ and there is no way for the municipality to recover any funds from these homes. The money just does not exist‚" Matutle explained.
For the months of July to October‚ Matjhabeng billed its residents R379m but collected only R180m. At the same time‚ the municipality was billed R445m by Sedibeng and Eskom.
Schalk van der Merwe‚ executive member of the Goldfields chamber of commerce and provincial chairman of the Small Business Institute‚ said the entire Goldfields area was rapidly deteriorating‚ and was an example of what other parts of the country could look like in five to 10 years.
"At this point in time the local economy is in decline. Every week you hear of a new business that is closing down. Even the big businesses are suffering‚ the little guys are suffering‚" he said.
"The towns are dying‚ Virginia and Odendaalsrus are dying. The only town that is not really that badly affected is Henneman‚ because it was never a mining town. It was always an agricultural centre.
"But the rest of the Goldfields is going down, and going down very quickly."
Van der Merwe said that while the effect of the mine closures was undeniable‚ the life span of the mines was well communicated.
"From national and provincial government‚ and especially local government‚ there should have been plans in the pipeline to address this problem. Because you are sitting with a number of highly skilled people‚ but these skills have become redundant now. It was for government to facilitate a new economy to be introduced‚" he said.
"Organised business has done extensive work over the years on planning new initiatives to grow a new economy out of the old but from government’s side there was never really any buy-in."
Van der Merwe questioned the management of Matjhabeng’s debt book.
"For these guys to actually balance their books they must show that they have a huge amount of debt outstanding from the people that are supposed to buy from them.
"And we asked them for a list of businesses in the area who have outstanding debt‚ and we found some factories that have bills of R200m. That is impossible‚ you can’t even use that amount of energy‚ never mind be in arrears to that amount‚" he said.
Last week the municipality announced to its residents through a front-page article in a local newspaper that no one needed to fear the water supply being cut off come December 8‚ as Mokonyane has threatened.
"The Matjhabeng municipality has been consistent in sticking to a payment schedule with Sedibeng and Eskom. However‚ the challenge lies with the defaulters who have undermined council’s 85% revenue target. Matjhabeng will not be affected by the cut-off threat‚" Matutle said.