Rosendal to Redemption: The route to repairing Free State roads
Broken roads and maladministration paint a bleak picture of provicial government failure in the Free State. Communities are now taking action.
Almost two years since we published a report on civil society’s response to the breakdown of service delivery around the eastern Free State creative arts hub of Rosendal, residents say nothing has improved.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Innovative residents of a small town in the Free State have big solutions on service delivery
Former Free State premier Ace Magashule has since been removed from office and expelled from the ANC, yet the rot associated with the three-decade rule of the provincial government continues. Against a background of broken roads and maladministration, communities are standing up for themselves and taking direct action.
Ficksburg-based community activist Selloane Lephoi is the spokesperson for the Setsoto Service Delivery Forum – the official opposition at the Setsoto Local Municipality. Lephoi says the reason for the “extreme deterioration” of roads on her patch of the eastern Free State is simple.
“Corruption. Money to fix the R70 – which links Senekal to Rosendal and Ficksburg – goes out of government coffers but does not end [in] the road being fixed.”
Lephoi also co-runs Ficksburg My Home, a civil society organisation she co-founded with local businessman, Laiki Coccosulis, and which she says has “taken over the upkeep of our town”, best known for its Cherry Festival every November.
She says their volunteers work “Mondays to Fridays”, cutting grass, pruning trees, cleaning streets and clearing drains, with local businesses contributing towards their allowances and tools.
Such is the activist’s frustration with the state of Ficksburg’s roads, infrastructure and “general lack of accountability”, that she accused the Setsoto municipal manager of corruption and was sued in the Bloemfontein High Court for defamation. Other citizens have taken a less dramatic approach.
Taking back the roads
Some 60km from Ficksburg, Rosendal-Mautse town committee chairperson, Douglas Mason, says various communities in the eastern Free State have, like other rural South African towns, taken over the maintenance and repairing of roads.
“The R70 had deteriorated to the point that it was choking access to Rosendal and neighbouring towns, a serious issue when tourism is the only local source of jobs growth.”
He says the farmers’ repairs have made a significant difference to the area.
While “boer-maak-’n-plan” initiatives have become a common trend throughout much of rural South Africa, Mason says the Rosendal-Mautse town committee took civic action further, bringing an application to comply with an access to information request against the provincial department for police, roads and transport (DPRT) regarding R70 road maintenance – aiming to show that recourse does exist and should be exercised.
Asked for comment on the state of the R70, DPRT MEC Letsoha Maqueen Mathae said “routine maintenance” was carried out during the 2021/22 financial year when a contractor development programme (CDP) contractor was appointed on the R70 between Senekal and Rosendal.
“Internal maintenance teams with limited capacity also attempted to perform maintenance activities with their available resources.”
Jafta Mokoena, an opposition party member of the legislature assigned to various portfolios, including roads and transport, says Mathae is “typical ANC… she doesn’t like listening to opposition politics”.
Mason says it is specifically the state of the R70 linking Senekal and Rosendal to the regional centre of Ficksburg that has galvanised communities into action, with the Rosendal-Mautse town committee contributing funds for the maintenance and repair of the road, and farmers doing the work.
He says the optimal solution would be for Sanral to take over the maintenance of the R70, as has happened elsewhere in the province.
Soil and motor oil 1 EPW 0
“Using simple technology – soil mixed with motor oil – and small work crews drawn from farm workers”, says Mason, “the outputs are longer lasting and better quality than that of the CD (contractor development) programmes and EPW (Expanded Public Works) programmes.”
Speaking from Bloemfontein, the commercial manager for Free State Agriculture (FSA), Jack Armour, says the state of the R70 is symptomatic, “but by no means the worst”. He speaks of the department’s “obsession” with failing CD programmes.
“The experience of the farmers using these provincial roads is that CDP and EPW contract workers do not produce professional work required for repairing a road, like bonding the tar and gravel, which is essential.”
He says these contractors often disappear, leaving unrepaired roads and “more government funds wasted on litigation”.
Describing the programmes as cumbersome, “involving budget approval of a year followed by a tender process of no less than six months”, Armour says the FSA has for seven years been pressuring the department to employ full-time “pick-and-shovel workers and drivers” who can address problems immediately.
“The Free State government has repeatedly failed to fix our road network using EPWP,” says Lephoi, comparing it to Sanral which she says uses “reputable companies” to build and maintain national roads.
“They do not understand that by investing in quality roads, they will be planting a seed for an economy of industries that will employ youth, women and disabled people permanently instead of for 10 months.”
Free State Premier Mxolisi Dukwana’s State of the Province (Sopa) Address in February nevertheless referred to the province’s EPWP as a success, noting the creation of “50,082 job opportunities… thereby exceeding our 2022 commitment”.
The efficacy of the jobs done is not mentioned in the Sopa.
A 2017 report prepared for the FSA by the South African Institute of Civil Engineers – which it submitted to the Free State Department of Police, Roads and Transport (DPRT) – gave the Free State’s provincial tar roads a “D”, illustrating “risk of failure”, and its gravel roads an “E”; “unfit for purpose”.
Taking it forward
Apart from approaching the national and provincial governments and taking “exposés” to the media, Armour says the FSA is now speaking “directly with Sanral and Infrastructure SA in the President’s office”.
Regarding the former – as with the Rosendal-Mautse town committee – they want Sanral to manage their roads. Armour says the FSA is trying to access some of the funding available within the Infrastructure SA unit.
He refers to the FSA’s reporting mechanism of “district level WhatsApp groups” that include “145 Farmers’ Association road representatives and the DPRT’s district engineer, road superintendent and district director for roads”. He says farmers report problems with an image or video of the problem road and a GPS location pin.
One such pin was posted by George Leonard who farms grain and beef and pecan nuts in the Kroonstad-Vredefort-Viljoenskroon area. Daily Maverick has seen his communications from more than a year ago with various DPRT officials, regarding a disintegrated bridge – over the S268 district road – that was washed away by the floods of early 2022 and is no longer passable by vehicles.
The bridge is used by local communities to reach the nearby hub of Viljoenskroon and by Leonard to access his crops on the other side of the river. Without the bridge, it’s a 160km round trip.
Leonard says the relevant DPRT official called him five minutes after Daily Maverick sent questions to the department.
“I hadn’t heard from him for a year”.
The farmer says the official “promised to attend to the matter, if not in this financial year, then the next one”.
Leonard says there is a mine in the area that helps to maintain the roads.
Lending a hand
The chairperson of the provincial taxi council, Emmanuel Mthimkhulu, says that in the past two years, farmers belonging to Agri SA in the Ficksburg area teamed up with taxi operators to “close the potholes between Ficksburg and Fouriesburg on the R26”, a stretch of road that runs north-south down Free State’s border with Lesotho.
“I hope the Free State government finds the courage and appetite to repair these roads”, says Mthimkhulu, adding that, like Lephoi in Ficksburg, the taxi operators “don’t subscribe” to Operation Vala Zonke, the provincial government’s apparently failed attempt to “fill” the province’s potholes.
‘Yes We Can’
Frans Cronje, an ex-Capetonian film producer who moved to Senekal in 2021 – with a plan to start a film school – says the potholes and infrastructure collapse are reflective of “a leadership crisis across all tiers of government”, and that Senekal is proof of what can be done by the community coming together.
Cronje says while they have fixed “5,500 potholes”, the town has followed a big-picture approach, starting with the establishment of the “non-political, all-inclusive” Senekal Matwabeng Community Forum to help revitalise the town and region.
He speaks of a memorandum of understanding signed with the local municipality defining how the community can assist with issues “that are actually the responsibility of the government”.
He says garbage in Senekal and Matwabeng is collected, street signs painted and parks and pavements are cleaned.
“We are still a long way from a fully functional town or municipality, but things are so much better and we see improvement all the time. At least things are getting better now, instead of worse. True change can only happen when black and white take hands.
“People now drive into town and can see the difference. This also gave hope to residents that change is possible.”
Successful civic pressure
The FSA’s Jack Armour says local farmers’ associations “teaming up” with business and taxi associations and local NGOs and churches are a formidable force to turn around one local community at a time.
“It is our role as the FSA to support these local initiatives and make a real difference on the ground where the takkie hits the tar.”
Speaking from Rosendal, Mason says their town committee’s access to information request was ignored this past week, but that their “civil society campaign of agitation” seems to have succeeded to some extent.
The R70 will not be fully rehabilitated, he says, but a tender has been issued by the DPRT for “proper repair of the R70 by a qualified contractor” and not “bogus” CDP or EPW programmes. DM