Zamdela protesters’ merger fears were justified

THERE is little doubt that the causes of last month’s outbreak of violence in the Sasolburg township of Zamdela were complex. An apparent lack of consultation a dismal response to requests for community meetings provincial factionalism (with Zamdela residents opposed to neighbouring Ngwathe’s association with controversial Free State Premier Ace Magashule) and it was suggested on these pages last week spikes in "nondiscretionary" inflation have all been blamed for days of disturbing anarchy.

Such violent outbreaks are terrifying for the public as well as policy makers. Were residents being stoked up by political factionalism infighting and other uncontrollable concerns or can their grievances be understood and addressed by rational analysis? Unfortunately reports of criminality xenophobia racism and vandalism and the horrific images of the wounded eclipsed the substantive concerns of residents.

Were concerns related to spiking living costs? We can find no statistical link between a measurement of inflation and protests against local government.

Rather local government concerns appear to have been central to the Zamdela protests and on investigation are lucid and compelling. Zamdela residents do not want to be incorporated into Ngwathe as they assume the service delivery they receive from a larger amalgamated entity will be compromised based on an assessment of Ngwathe as the inferior municipality.

Ngwathe with its offices in Parys is certainly the more picturesque when compared to the industrial town of Sasolburg headquarters of the Metsimaholo municipality. But attractiveness to weekend tourists is not necessarily relevant to residents. While on the face of it the two municipalities are very similar in size (with about 120863 residents in Ngwathe and 155738 in Metsimaholo) and have similar records in basic service delivery (with just less than 90% of residents accessing a package of basic municipal services in both municipalities in 2011) there are distinct differences Zamdela residents appear to be aware of.

This is suggested by vastly different rates of demographic growth between the 2001 and 2011 censuses — Ngwathe grew by a mere 1.4% while Metsimaholo expanded by 28.6% — clearly the more popular municipality. Why is this? It’s not (as is often the case) a simple story of job opportunities with the unemployment rate in Ngwathe only marginally higher than in Metsimaholo.

But our research shows the overall socioeconomic environment in Metsimaholo as reflected by the our productivity index provides better living and working conditions than Ngwathe (a measurement that takes into account not only basic services but also economic infrastructure and municipal spending). Ngwathe only falls in the third quintile of productivity index scores while Metsimaholo makes it into the first (top 20%).

Aside from socioeconomic conditions which are only partly in the control of local government Metsimaholo appears to deliver more to its residents than Ngwathe with each resident allocated an additional R1000 more of spending over a four-year period.

Symptomatically in the 2011-12 financial year financial returns submitted by the Ngwathe municipality to the National Treasury suggest an almost complete failure by the municipality to spend its capital budget.

These figures for residents manifest in very concrete ways. Looking at the Department of Water Affair’s Blue Drop scores a rash of red noncompliance indicators show up in Ngwathe suggesting unsafe water while Metsimaholo shows up excellent drinking water quality (including in Zamdela).

Potential financiers would also look more favourably on Metsimaholo’s financial indicators and this has implications for potential to leverage capital for much-needed infrastructure investment.

These variables all stack up to understandable concerns for residents with members of the community latching on to outstanding debt owed by Ngwathe to Eskom — a heritage they understandably want no part of. As one protester argued on’s Third Degree Zamdela has its own issues and needs to address these before those of others.

Whatever the political dimensions of the dispute Zamdela residents’ concerns benchmarked against their neighbours are not frivolous.