Allegations around public works programme spark protests in desperate Free State dorp

| Carmel Rickard
Protests erupted over job allocation for the Expanded Public Works Programme in Smithfield, Free State forcing closure of the N6. Photo by Carmel Rickard.

Arrive in Smithfield from any direction and the first official board one sees announces: ‘Mohokare declares war on waste’. The chief weapon in that war is a platoon of temporary workers hired under government’s Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) administered by local municipalities.

Mohokare Local Municipality is situated within the Xhariep District in the south-eastern Free State, consisting of Smithfield and the nearby towns of Zastron and Rouxville.

People hired as EPWP workers – mostly women - skoffel the grassy pavements and pick up litter. Whether they achieve much beyond getting desperately needed wages into the community is a matter of dispute: skoffelling adds to the dust problem, while the litter is simply piled up at street corners where the wind blows it back onto the streets.

But the jobs are in great demand; so much so that serious protests broke out in this tiny Free State dorp last week over 16 allegedly corrupt appointments.

The protests closed the national road that runs through Smithfield linking Gauteng to the industrial hub of East London and brought the riot police, now officially called the public order policing unit. They have been posted to Smithfield for at least nine days, apparently to keep the smouldering resentment from blazing up again.

The cause of the protests appears to be acutely embarrassing to the local ANC-led municipal bosses, but no-one will speak on the record.

One senior municipal official, an ANC member who gave some of the backstory, asked not to be named as he feared for his life if he was identified.

He said an ex-councillor, who is “popular with the outside ANC”, had interfered with the usual way that temporary EPWP workers were hired. This caused a backlash across all political groupings in the local townships.

Normally, these jobs are distributed on the basis of a raffle: work-seekers put their ID books into a drum and the jobs go to the people whose names are drawn. This means that it’s luck rather than good connections that determine whether you get work.

“If you’re Cope, DA, ANC or nothing, it doesn’t matter,” he explained. “You still have a chance.”

But this time, the ex-councillor ‘appointed’ 11 people to the skoffelling programme and another five to work on the agricultural section of the programme. He has no authority to make such appointments, and word during the mass demonstrations in town is that the appointees are people to whom he owes favours.

The new cleaners pitched for work in their uniforms on Monday 8 September, and the local townships immediately erupted. A major protest was held outside the municipal building, which just happens to be on the most strategically vulnerable corner in town, exactly where all the traffic from Gauteng must stop and make a right-angled turn to continue along the N6.

Drums filled with burning rubbish were placed outside the building in the middle of the N6, and at major intersections all the way down Smithfield’s High Street, which is also the N6.

Drums burned along with wooden bollards pulled from the road edges. The heat was so intense that the steel reinforcing under the brand new concrete highway buckled and the road ‘exploded’ in several places. The N6 was closed to traffic, forcing motorists to detour.

The next day, about 1,000 people marched towards the town hall where the 11 cleaners were working. The cleaners were driven off in a private car, and the protesters were dispersed when police fired teargas.

Barricades and rocks made travel through the township roads difficult and many of those dispersed during the morning protest hid in the hills surrounding the town.

The veld was set alight, and farm workers were threatened when they tried to put out the fires spreading onto farm land.

Over the next 24 hours, police helicopters circled the town and the neighbouring mountains, looking for suspects.

On Friday, protesters again gathered outside the municipal building, once more bringing traffic on the N6 to a stop, though this time police directed motorists along a shorter deviation.

By this stage, the protests were being driven by the EFF. The ANC supporters had been given none of the usual back-up to protest about the allegedly corrupt appointments because of complicated allegiances within the local party structure.

The EFF filled the leadership vacuum, said the party’s local chief marshal, Kekeletso Ratsoana. Many people from across the political spectrum were part of the protest. He said the protesters had included ANC members dressed in ‘civvies’, as well as supporters from other parties.

Outside the municipal building, the EFF’s red dominated with ‘Zuma - Pay back the money’ stickers provided by Ratsoana.

Mayor Agnes Shasha of Mohokare Municipality in the Free State receives the list of complaints from protesting residents. Photo by Carmel Rickard.

EFF convenor Maxwell Mrwetyana read out a list of complaints to the mayor, Agnes Shasha, who listened, tight-lipped, from under an ANC umbrella held by her aide. She signed a copy, and said that she would read the document and get back to the protesters in seven days. Then she sped back to Zastron.

Afterwards, Ratsoana said no-one knew what the EPWP workers were being paid: rumours of R80 and R120 a day were spreading. And no one knew if the jobs were for a couple of weeks or indefinitely renewable.

A week after the start of the protest, the contentious cleaners are back on the job, the riot police remain in town, and the community is still trying to organise a meeting with any municipal official to get answers to their questions.

“We are now trying to get (ANC) councillor Thuhlo Ritshilisitso to talk to us,” said Ratsoana. “Maybe he can arrange a meeting for us with the mayor.”

Neither the mayor nor the municipal manager returned GroundUp’s calls, despite messages left for them.

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TOPICS:  Corruption Health Politics Sanitation

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