Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Richard Baloyi is bound to take flak for "capitulating" in the face of days of violent protests in Sasolburg this week. Certainly, the precedent that is being set when the demands of law-abiding protesters are routinely ignored, while those who attack police, destroy infrastructure and loot shops get their way, does not augur well for the future.

But that does not mean the government should press ahead with the proposed merger of Sasolburg into the neighbouring Ngwathe municipality, which includes the town of Parys and is ostensibly the cause of the chaos that erupted in Sasolburg’s Zamdela township. There are occasions when the government is obliged to risk the wrath of the population by making unpopular decisions for the greater good. But that is not the case here.

If the majority of Sasolburg residents are so strongly opposed to the merger, as is apparently the case — local business leaders, while deploring the destruction and looting, are reportedly just as reluctant to throw their lot in with Parys — then there is little purpose in going ahead come hell or high water. It does not matter that the demarcation consultative process has not yet run its course, and that the residents’ anger is therefore premature.

Perceptions matter, and it is clear the residents of Zamdela are convinced they will be worse off if their town is amalgamated with Ngwathe. From an administrative perspective, that may not be correct, but the people concerned can be forgiven for doubting the bona fides of both the government and the officially nonpartisan Municipal Demarcation Board. There have been too many unfulfilled promises and examples of self-serving politicians abusing voters’ trust for official reassurances to be taken at face value any longer.

It is unfortunate that protests such as this, which usually spring from legitimate grievances, are often hijacked by political opportunists and criminal elements. That applied at Marikana, where inter-union rivalry clearly played a role in the labour unrest that eventually led to the deaths of more than 40 miners, as much as in the destructive Western Cape fruit farm strikes and the events at Sasolburg.

When the institutions that underpin democracy start to break down and lose legitimacy, trust and rational discussion of contentious issues are among the first casualties. Responsibility for restoring that trust lies with those who have the most to lose from a descent into anarchy — the country’s political, trade union and business leadership.