Nearly 10 years have passed since Andries Tatane was shot and killed during a service delivery protest in the small eastern Free State town of Ficksburg on 13 April 2011.
His final moments were broadcast on the evening news, to the nation’s horror. Images of the 33-year-old’s hand clutching his bloodied chest where he had been pierced by a rubber bullet are embedded in the country’s psyche as a symbol of democracy unravelling.
Family members say Tatane would be aghast to see that little has improved in Ficksburg or its neighbouring township, Meqheleng, where he lived. Riddled with potholes and debris, the area, which borders Lesotho, is poorly maintained and many are pointing fingers at the failing Setsoto Local Municipality.
For Mohau Tsoeu, Tatane’s nephew, “corrupt officials” at the municipality have failed to address basic service delivery issues.
“If you go to the municipal offices, you’ll find those people are not qualified to be in those offices. Some people get tenders by favours because they know some comrade and that comrade will connect them. That’s what is happening,” said Tsoeu, clearly enraged.
We met him on a warm evening in Meqheleng at his family homestead. He welcomed us into an RDP house built by the government after his uncle’s death. It is now occupied by Tatane’s elder sister (Tsoeu’s mother). Behind the house is a run-down building where Tatane used to live.
The 35-year-old said politicians made a lot of promises to the family after his uncle’s death. “They even promised tenders, but nothing happened.”
Feeling betrayed, Tsoeu was disillusioned with politics.
“The last time I voted was when he was still alive. I never voted after that because I only see corruption,” he said.
A desperate plea for basic services
Community activist and close friend of Tatane’s, Tugela Miya, said things had worsened since his comrade’s death.
“The roads are so bad, there are places you can’t drive through,” Miya said. Ficksburg residents had resorted to filling potholes with concrete, sand and even grass.
In some places, long stretches of road were cordoned off for roadworks that seemed abandoned.
“We wrote letters to the municipality with some of our complaints, but they never responded.” One of the letters, seen by Daily Maverick, from a community organisation called Ficksburg Regaining the Glory of your Township, raised concerns over people from outside Ficksburg being awarded construction tenders and occupying key positions within the municipality.
The letter read: “We have an impatient/outraged community out there that feels like it has been taken for a ride for quite some time and that feels like those in power are not taking them and their concerns seriously.”
It went on to warn of protest action if the municipality failed to engage meaningfully with residents.
Tsoeu says the community is still undergoing a “water crisis”, one of the main issues which sparked the 2011 protest. “This year is better because it’s raining, but the water closes at 6pm and opens at 6am — why?”
A severe drought hit the town in 2011, exacerbating existing water shortages. Problems were linked to the town’s valve system which lacked the pressure needed to pump water from the nearby Caledon River to Meqheleng. To address the issue, R18-million was spent on a 10-megalitre reservoir, but residents are still complaining about water rationing.
Neo Thabane, a teacher and Meqheleng resident, said water in his zone of the township is often switched off from 9pm to 6am. “There are people who go without water for a week,” he said, adding that the water quality had also deteriorated over time.
Power cuts are common and erratic, especially in the township. “It can happen at six o’clock in the morning,” said Thabane. “It’s normally Fridays, Mondays, Sundays or Saturdays. And we’re not even aware of when it happens.”
According to Miya, law enforcement is poor in Ficksburg, especially near the Caledon River which borders Lesotho. He took us down to the river where no SANDF soldiers are on patrol. The porous border is apparently a hotspot for livestock theft and violent crime.
“People kill each other at the river, a lot, because there are petty gangsters there,” he said “On Fridays, there are many people crossing the river. The gangsters wait at the top of the river and watch people heading to the Caledon. They run and ambush them as they enter the river.”
The township also has an ongoing sewage problem. As we approached the river, water tainted with sewage could be seen flowing into the Caledon.
“The most painful part is that money gets squandered here in Ficksburg,” Miya lamented.
Corrupt to the core
According to municipal audit outcomes, for the 2018/2019 financial year, the Setsoto local municipality had incurred unauthorised expenditure for three years of R620-million. The municipality’s salary bill of R200-million exceeded the R159-million revenue collected from consumers and had to be cushioned using government grants.
In contrast, only R3.5-million (about 0.1% of the budget) was spent on maintenance and repairs. Because of this, the municipality incurred extensive water (42%) and electricity (11%) losses of R24.3-million due to leakages, burst pipes, line losses, tampering and theft. Additionally, more than 55% of the money spent was considered to be unauthorised, irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure.
Following Tatane’s death, the lid was blown open on problems in Setsoto municipality which oversees Ficksburg, Senekal, Clocolan and Marquard.
An investigation ordered by then Free State MEC for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Mamiki Qabathe into the Setsoto local municipality found that widespread theft, fraud, corruption, nepotism among other maladies, had left the municipality in disarray.
The 2011 report had a laundry list of findings that showed the failing municipality did little to improve service delivery, awarded tenders to friends, appointed relatives to official positions and inflated costs to secure bribes from service providers. There were also irregularities in appointing a service provider to run the Cherry Festival that year, Ficksburg’s largest annual tourist attraction.
Corrupt dealings were traced back to four top officials within the municipality who were suspended and later resigned.
Corruption was coupled with violent criminality in Setsoto.
Whistle-blower Moses Chaka, the municipal audit committee chairperson responsible for the report, was brutally attacked two years later for investigations into provincial projects, including the Gupta-linked Vrede dairy farm. He died from his injuries.
A recent scandal involves former mayor Nthateng Maoke, who resigned amid allegations of fraudulently obtaining South African citizenship. Maoke, who is alleged to be a Lesotho national, is now working in the municipality as a councillor.
A culture of fear and silence
Lefu Tatane says people are afraid to speak out after his younger brother was killed.
“So many people were threatened,” said Tatane who now lives in Bloemfontein. He spoke to us on the phone.
Miya, who was a member of the community organisation Meqheleng Concerned Citizens (MCC), which led the 2011 protest, claims municipal officials sent death threats to prominent members of the organisation. “We were warned hitmen would kill us”.
He says officials were trying to stifle any further resistance against the municipality.
Many believe Tatane was deliberately targeted and assassinated for his political activism. In 2011, he had decided to contest the municipal elections as an independent ward candidate. Miya believes Tatane’s popularity among voters had been seen as a threat.
Tsoeu also believes his uncle was killed deliberately. “If he had an issue with something he would speak up,” said Tsoeu. “I don’t know, but I think he was a target. I think he was a target because at the time they saw that he would collapse the municipality or something.”
Tatane died before elections happened in May.
According to Miya, MCC, which had become a beacon of hope for the community, collapsed when many of its members sold out. It’s common cause in Meqheleng that those who abandoned the cause accepted bribes, tenders and were even given jobs within the municipality.
Interestingly, the 2011 investigation into the municipality found that MCC had “personal interests” in Setsoto. Investigators uncovered a letter from MCC to the municipality from 25 March 2011 demanding that 18 of its members be appointed to vacant posts within Setsoto.
“All this will count in your favour as the municipality,” MCC wrote. The letter was sent less than a month before the protest.
Justice was not served
In March 2013, the seven cops accused of killing Tatane were acquitted in the Ficksburg Regional Court. Tsoeu says this was an injustice on all counts.
“Everyone saw his death on TV, but the justice system said that those guys were innocent, the police. No one went to prison, until today.”
Regional Magistrate Hein van Niekerk found that the state could not prove its case of murder and assault beyond reasonable doubt.
The protest, which attracted roughly 4,000 people, was meant to be a peaceful march, but turned ugly when police used water cannons to disperse the crowd. Reports and those who were present say the elderly among the crowd were in harm’s way and Tatane stepped in to try to get the police to stop using the cannons.
Video footage shows a scuffle ensued between Tatane and police officers. He was kicked, beaten with batons and shot in the chest with a rubber bullet.
The court ruled that the identity of the accused policemen could not be proven, nor could the rubber bullet that killed Tatane be traced back to a firearm.
Tsoeu felt the justice system failed dismally. “What more evidence did they need because everything was on TV, they got recordings. He had nothing in his hands,” he said, gesturing emphatically.
“Why didn’t they use pepper spray, because if they say he was aggressive, they should have used pepper spray on him and then handcuffed him. You are a trained policeman, but you can’t detain someone. How is that possible?”
The trial itself was riddled with irregularities. Some state witnesses denied the content of their original statements, while others gave contradictory evidence. Police witnesses were found by the court to be evasive, not credible and unreliable.
Tatane’s elder brother believes the trial was a political game. “Prominent witnesses were never called to Andries’s case,” he said.
Miya also believes some key witnesses were strategically excluded from taking the stand — himself included. “There are others among us who went to court and lied on the stand about the events of Tatane’s death.”
The state did not appeal against the case, but the family wanted to. Lefu Tatane said the family, alongside Tatane’s now-deceased wife Rose Mohlaping, had planned to appeal against the ruling. He says officials from the Congress of the People (Cope) had also offered assistance, but nothing materialised. Tatane was a Cope member, but had left the organisation to join MCC.
“I still feel that justice was not done, it must be appealed, but I need people who will assist me,” said Tatane’s brother.
Picking up the pieces
“My community has forgotten about Andries,” said Tsoeu. “But he died for the community.” Tsoeu expressed disappointment that on 13 April, no one commemorates his uncle’s death.
Lefu says Cope used to commemorate his death every April, but now “they’re just quiet.”
Remembering his friend, Miya said Tatane was a staunch leftist. “When we greeted each other we shook hands only with our left hand.” The gesture was to pledge allegiance to their left-wing ideologies. “We decided that our hearts were left-wing. The right-wing couldn’t be trusted, it was for the greedy.”
The pair met in school and connected over a passion for maths and science.
“He was outspoken and humble,” said Miya. He recounts how they used to attend community meetings in flip flops and shorts as a display of humility. “He said that if we are among the people we must humble ourselves.”
Apart from his activism, Tatane was a maths and science tutor offering extra classes at the Meqheleng library.
Tatane grew up in Meqheleng and was the youngest of four children. Lefu described him as a quiet, intelligent child who often kept to himself. After matric, he went to UCT and then Wits, though it’s unclear whether he completed his studies. In 1998, he was enrolled in the engineering faculty at UCT.
According to Lefu, his brother first dabbled in politics as a member of the ANC Youth League. He then left the ANC to join Cope and later MCC.
We were unable to speak to his two sons, Molefi and Tshepang, who were four and seven years old at the time of their father’s death. The pair are now orphaned after their mother died in a car accident in Lesotho in 2017.
When asked how Tatane’s sons are coping with the loss of both parents, Lefu declined to comment for fear he would break down in tears.
But the family is picking up the pieces and seeking ways to ensure Tatane’s legacy is never forgotten. Tsoeu and his uncle have started an NPO named Andries Tatane Community Development. The organisation which is still in its infancy, is aimed at continuing Tatane’s work as a tutor by offering extra classes to young people in the township as well as tackling social ills in the township such as hunger and unemployment.
“Another thing I was looking at was counselling. Kids have challenges when they grow up, you know, others are in child-headed homes, others have parents that fight. Those things affect the mind of the kids and they do not perform at school. Others are street kids because of the things that are happening at home. So I wanted that community development at least to bring change. And then maybe it will say something about Andries,” said Tsoeu.
Tatane and Tsoeu have appealed to the public to offer funding for the project. DM
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