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Frustrated Free State farmers dig in together to fix giant potholes
The members of an agricultural community in the Free State have decided to fix a large stretch of the pothole-riddled R34 themselves, instead of complaining about the government’s inability to do so.
Farmers in the Memel area have put resources and manpower together, valued at an estimated R250,000, to repair more than 40km of road dotted with large potholes.
This stretch is notorious for its poor road infrastructure, costing lives and damaging many vehicles. It has reached the point where it’s also affecting the economic value of agriculture in the area.
The R34 is one of the longest routes in the country, connecting Vryburg with Richards Bay via Kroonstad and Newcastle. It passes through three provinces – North West, the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal.
For more than a year farmers have pulled out all stops to get regional and local governments to repair the road, to no avail. The Free State government has admitted there is no maintenance programme in place, but that it is in the process of procuring material and contract workers to address this crisis.
Asked when last maintenance was carried out, the provincial roads and transport department said: “There is a serious shortage of manpower in the department. The last time the road received proper maintenance was in the 2021/22 financial year, when two CDP contractors were appointed for pothole patching on the Vrede-Memel and Memel-Botha’s Pass sections of that road.”
It was reported in March 2023 that the Free State government would spend R1.8-billion on repairing the province’s crumbling roads.
The road is currently supposed to be maintained by the Vrede Roads office, but the provincial roads and transport department has conceded that due to a “serious manpower” shortage, it’s unable to.
“We can’t go on like this and we’ve decided to do our own thing. Every day we damage our vehicle tyres not even to talk about how many lives have been lost on the R34 route,” said Marthinus Willemse, chairman of the Memel Farmers Association.
Last week, about 70 local farmers and farmworkers braved the ice-cold winter breeze, spades and shovels in hand, and spent hours smoothing the road. Farmers in the area sent equipment, transport, material and manpower to help out.
“We’ve decided that we have to do something ourselves. We took the initiative and arranged for farmers in the area. Everyone sent at least one tractor, some even sent three tractors to help. We had about eight TLBs (tractor-loader-backhoe). People even sent their bakkies and trailers just to transport gravel. It was a huge effort.”
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Some parts of the R34 running through Vrede and Memel are almost inaccessible for vehicles with small tyres. Potholes as wide as 2m mean motorists do not have enough time to swerve and avoid a massive hit to their tyres.
The farmers are also worried that if nothing is done, their business will suffer. It’s harvest time and all the grain must be transported to the various silos, which means the R34 will be exceptionally busy.
Willemse said that, at a time when everyone is frustrated by continuous rolling blackouts as a result of poor maintenance of Eskom infrastructure, South Africans have to come to terms with the fact that everyone needs to look after their own interest – like fixing potholes when and where they can. DM