THE proposed merger between the Metsimaholo and Ngwathe municipalities in the Free State was initiated by the provincial department of co-operative governance in 2011 to enhance the area’s economic competitiveness, it emerged on Tuesday.
The merger was at the centre of a violent protest by residents of Sasolburg last week, during which four people died, shops, clinics and libraries were looted, and more than 250 people were arrested.
The provincial government has distanced itself from the proposed merger, saying the responsibility for re-demarcating municipalities was with the Municipal Demarcation Board (MDB).
Yet its own proposal spurred the board’s work on the possible merger, which has since been "suspended" due to the volatility of the situation.
"We are of the view that if we need to promote economic growth and competitive advantage along the Vaal River border, we have to create a single municipality in this area," the proposal by the provincial government says.
Dated December 15 2011, the proposal was signed by former cooperative governance MEC Mamiki Qabathe and the department’s current head, Kopung Ralikontsane. It was released by the Democratic Alliance (DA) on Tuesday.
The proposal further read that Ngwathe and Metsimaholo were competing strongly with the Gauteng municipalities along the Vaal River and suggested the amalgamation would enhance the Free State area’s competitiveness. But it failed to explain how.
On the Gauteng side of the provincial border, moves are also afoot to merge the DA-run Midvaal municipality and the Emfuleni municipality to create a metro.
Sasolburg residents blame Free State Premier Ace Magashule for the trouble, arguing that he had rubber-stamped the merger to boost the profile of his home town, Parys, part of the Ngwathe municipality, which is largely rural and underdeveloped.
Opposition to the merger is strong, with submissions to the demarcation board by ratepayers associations and opposition parties listing reasons why it would not be viable.
The DA, in its submission, says neither the board nor the provincial government had provided reasons for the merger or shown how it would benefit residents of either municipality economically.
The Sasolburg issue has once again cast a spotlight on the apparent flippancy with which proposals on re-demarcation are brought before the board, and shown their damaging effects.
The provincial co-operative governance department declined to comment on the issue yesterday, saying the process was now being handled by Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Richard Baloyi.
An analyst from the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa, Ebrahim Fakir, cautions against accusing the government of having "spurious reasons" for the merger.
"Political gerrymandering" — usually used when parties felt they were losing ground and re-demarcation could rescue them — was not present in this case, he says. The African National Congress held a strong majority in both the municipalities.
Another possible reason was internal African National Congress (ANC) politics. The Fezile Dabi region of the ANC, which includes both Ngwathe and Metsimaholo, was a point of contention ahead of the province’s elective conference last year.
Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters, had ordered the province to rerun the region’s elective conference after irregularities were uncovered. However, residents who protested last week deny a link between their grievances and internal ANC wrangling.
The ANC in the province also says it is unlikely that the protests were spurred by internal party squabbles. Spokesman Oupa Khoabane said the situation was rooted in genuine concerns by residents, but was exploited by criminals and those who disliked Mr Magashule.
He says the submission to the demarcation board was signed by the former MEC and the head of department, not by the premier, yet Mr Magashule was at the receiving end of the ire of residents.
Concerned residents are, however, not convinced by arguments that the merger would be economically beneficial to both areas. The chairman of their association, Lucky Malebo, argues that both municipalities serve poor communities, with Metsimaholo slightly better off than Ngwathe.
He will outline reasons to the demarcation board on Wednesday why Sasolburg residents do not believe the merger should take place.
"No one has explained the economic benefits to us. We will explain to the board why we think it will hurt us even more. We don’t want Parys," he says.
The meeting between the board and Sasolburg residents is to take place at the MDB’s offices in Pretoria.
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