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GROUND LEVEL REPORT

Divided and riven with discontent — a deep dive into Swellendam

Divided and riven with discontent — a deep dive into Swellendam
Plakensplek, Swellendam at sunset. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

The town of Swellendam made headlines in August following the torching of its municipal offices during a protest over the municipality’s policies. Now a new ratepayers’ association has entered the picture. Daily Maverick spent some time in the area talking to residents and roleplayers.

Tension is in the air in Swellendam after two big protests in the area, over the municipality’s indigent policy and claims that those in the town’s richer community receive better municipal services than those living in the poorer areas. 

Swellendam, in the Overberg region, is situated halfway between George and Cape Town. In addition to the main town of Swellendam and the suburb of Railton, the municipality includes Barrydale, Suurbraak, Buffeljagsrivier and Malgas.

The town is divided not only along the N2 highway, but racially too. Its white population lives in the main town, which has shopping malls, good restaurants and five-star hotels. The roads are wide and largely pothole-free.

On the other side of the N2, in the suburb of Railton, the roads are much narrower and potholes are prevalent. The town’s informal settlement of Majoks is hidden behind Railton’s White City. Here, rubbish is dumped on street corners and cars drive on pavements to avoid bumping into each other in the narrow streets.

Swellendam

A resident watches the march from her home in Railton, Swellendam. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Taxis ferry residents to and from the town’s economic centre to their homes across the N2 highway. 

In mid-August, residents marched to the municipal building to protest against the changes to the municipality’s indigent policy that granted the poorest residents 50 free units of electricity a month and 67 free litres of water per day. The municipal building was torched and several shops looted in the protest. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: A day of chaos – Swellendam protesters torch municipal offices over ‘racism’, service delivery neglect

Then on 30 August, a group of about 300 residents marched again to the municipality, with several demands, which included:

  • The municipality’s amended indigent policy to be reviewed after more public participation;
  • The immediate removal of an “unregulated” R11.62 added to residents’ municipal bills to repair potholes; and
  • For streetlights to be put off during the day to conserve electricity.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Swellendam protestors demand end to indigent policy, improved services — DA touts political meddling 

In a 10-page letter, Swellendam’s mayor, Francois du Rand of the DA, replied to the points made in the memorandum. He went into great detail about the history of South Africa’s indigent policies. When it came to electricity tariffs, he said Swellendam used guidelines determined by the National Energy Regulator of South Africa.  

“It would help if you were holding the ANC and Eskom accountable. Eskom’s failure to provide electricity to all South African citizens is primarily due to ANC corruption and mismanagement,” Du Rand wrote. 

Read his full response here.

***

After the protest on 30 August, Daily Maverick spent time in the area speaking to residents and roleplayers.

Mareleze Windvogel (30) and her father Johannes (70) live in White City, Railton. Their house was given to the family in 1993 by the apartheid government. Mareleze, a seasonal farmworker who is currently unemployed, was at both protests.

Swellendam

A dog drinks from a stream of sewage in Plakensplek, Swellendam. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

“The people living here at the back are in terrible conditions. There are children too,” said Johannes, a former member of the United Democratic Front who spent time on Robben Island for his involvement in the struggle against apartheid.

He relies on his pension payment to support his family when his daughter does not work. During Daily Maverick’s visit, he and his daughter were making a fire to cook food, as they had no money for electricity.

They locked up 107 people that were innocent. And in this cell at Swellendam Police Station, there were 23 people in one cell where there were 15 women.

Mareleze said, “I’m unemployed at the moment — he’s the only breadwinner in the house. If we can’t pay this month, our electricity gets blocked for the whole month.”

The smell of smoke clung to their home and Mareleze told Daily Maverick: “At the moment, we have to cook outside because we don’t have money to buy electricity because next week is [pension] grant day.”

When asked about the service in the municipality, Johannes said: “The municipality… all those whites are racist.”

Swellendam

The municipal building in Swellendam was burnt down by protesters on 16 August. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

He did not substantiate his claim. Mareleze added: “Their behaviour is really bad. When the first peaceful protest happened, they were very ugly towards the people who live here at the back and even against us coloured people.

“[They said], ‘Go, you dogs, what are you doing in our town?’

“And then the second thing they did, they locked up 107 people that were innocent. And in this cell at Swellendam Police Station, there were 23 people in one cell where there were 15 women. Some of the women had their periods; there were no facilities for them. There were no toilets, no washcloths; the conditions were terrible. The police shot first at these people. People suffer here and the electricity is very expensive.

“At this point, I feel like my father fought for nothing because I have nothing at the end of the day because people are still doing the same thing like they did in the past.”

***

Sydney Setiera, a former councillor in the municipality for the ANC, described the town as a “peaceful place”. Setiera had lived his whole life in Swellendam.

“The poverty … here is huge,” Setiera said. “The only thing we can do is work together for a better future in Swellendam.”  

Swellendam

Luyanda Sithelo, 42, in his newly erected shack in Plakensplek, Swellendam. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

When asked about Mayor du Rand, he said, “When this mayor came in, everything good went out.”

He said that within months of Du Rand taking over as mayor after the November 2021 elections, the municipality’s indigent policy was cancelled. 

“This is why people are angry; there was no consultation.” 

In previous years, Setiera said, former mayors visited the informal settlements, which Du Rand had not done. 

One of the issues Setiera raised was that if unemployed residents were as little as R5 in arrears, “their electricity is blocked”.

***

Many residents complained about service delivery issues involving water, refuse and sanitation in addition to the high cost of electricity. 

In the Majoks informal settlement, Daily Maverick saw children in the streets during the daytime when they should have been in school.

I work with stock and earn R4 per every filled bag. I work hard every day to fill at least 20 bags so I may make R80 because jobs are limited in Swellendam.

Rubbish was strewn all over the settlement and no bins were visible. As residents do not have toilets inside their shacks, the few public toilets had rubbish littered around them. 

“All I ever have is this shack and I get sick frequently because there are no services provided here,” said Passi Sombongile (41).

“We struggle since there aren’t even toilets for us… I have to go to the bush to relieve myself, which can be dangerous at night,” said Sombongile, who arrived in Swellendam just over three years ago. 

A woman collects water from a tap in Majoks, Swellendam. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Another resident, Kgauta Mohlakoana, arrived in Swellendam after his brother said there would be job opportunities.

“I collect naartjies at the farm, and it is a seasonal work. Even the weekly stipend we receive is not enough to sustain me,” he said. 

“I work with stock and earn R4 per every filled bag. I work hard every day to fill at least 20 bags so I may make R80 because jobs are limited in Swellendam, and water and power are beyond all that. There is no care for us.”  

***

After the protests, a group of residents came together to create a ratepayers’ association. Its inaugural meeting was held on Tuesday, 5 September. One of the founders of the new association, Hennie Smit, spoke from his home in Suurbraak.  

“[The association has] been coming along for quite some time,” said Smit, who had experience in setting up a ratepayers’ association in Calitzdorp, in the Kannaland municipality. 

Hennie Smit is forming a ratepayers’ association in Swellendam. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Smit wrote to the municipality about the indigent policy at the heart of the protest. In it, he asked what the municipality’s plan of action was for issues of growth in the informal settlements and the lack of basic services. He also questioned the comprehensive review of the indigent policy, which was tabled in the municipality’s Integrated Development Plan.  

“My view was, this policy would just keep them poor. Then this incident happened,” he said.

When Daily Maverick asked Smit how he would rate the service from the municipality, his wife Mara sighed loudly and Smit laughed.

“It’s not great; I think in this particular case, it’s not great,” he said. 

Besides the indigent policy, Smit said, “The refuse removal is another problem. They could have long ago started with recycling and created some jobs of that, but they just haven’t got around to that.”  

While the association was aware of the challenges posed by informal settlements and the limited funding of local government, the municipality was “not coming [up] with a solution”. 

“It all comes back to the municipality and the competencies it lacks. And the money is running,” said Smit, adding that the municipality lacked a proper plan of action.

He said everyone in the municipality had been invited to join the ratepayers’ association and they were collecting responses from residents to determine what was needed in specific areas. 

***

After the municipal building was torched, Mayor du Rand’s office was moved to the municipality’s Infrastructure Services Department. 

Du Rand said changes to the municipality’s indigent policy had involved several meetings with residents. He said some meetings were poorly attended, while others had to be postponed because of load shedding 

During his 2023/2024 budget speech, tabled in May, Du Rand said there had been a “significant” amendment to the indigent policy, “to improve pensioners’ rebates”. This included exempting the first R750,000 of property value from property taxes, and a 25% rebate on basic water, sewerage and refuse service charges. Requirements for the rebate included that household income not exceed five times the social grant pension, which equalled around R10,000 per month, and that pensioners needed to be 60 years or older.  

He added there were 2,010 indigent and 340 poor households in the municipality that were entitled to rebates and subsidies.

However, residents were now required to register to qualify for the rebates and subsidies. 

Nomikelo Ndikolo Majoks in Swellendam on 31 August 2023. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

“A municipality’s role is to vet every application, selecting only those households that meet various criteria. Successful applicants are granted indigent status. Municipalities often run awareness campaigns to ensure households know about the application process. Indigent status isn’t for life, however,” the mayor said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Flawed system: Political parties quiet as millions are excluded from poverty alleviation policies

The mayor said because the municipality was small, there were only a limited number of councillors. Along with Du Rand being a ward councillor, he was responsible for infrastructure as well as being mayor.

“The reason for that is I’m doing another job so we can save money.”   

*** 

In the Swellendam municipal council, the DA has five seats, the ANC has five seats and the Freedom Front Plus has one. Currently, the DA and Freedom Front Plus govern through a coalition. 

During the interview, Du Rand said ANC councillors and members were involved in the dispute over the indigent policy and in the marches.

In his response to the memorandum, he said, “We want to express our disappointment with the councillors, ward committee members and nominated representatives of the informal settlement for their dishonest behaviour, lies and inaction.” 

Mayor Francois du Rand stood behind the police until he accepted the memorandum handed to him by Railton residents. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

When Daily Maverick asked him to respond to some of the claims made by Smit, he shrugged and said, “He’s getting a bit irritating.”

He said Smit stood as a candidate for the Freedom Front Plus for Ward 4 and for the municipal mayorship in the 2021 local government elections, losing to Du Rand in both.

“You can try your best but you can never win,” said Du Rand about criticism from both sides of the municipality — its affluent area and those living in the informal areas.

“That’s fine, it comes with the job.” DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Graeme J says:

    So let me get this right. According to the graphic above, only 3% of the residents of Swellendam live in informal settlements. How does this compare with the rest of the country. Any guesses?

  • Inga Lawson says:

    ….the main town, which has shopping malls, good restaurants and five-star hotels.
    The article makes many valid points but starting with this statement puts many off reading any further. The malls, restaurants and hotels are commercial enterprises. Nobody will stop anybody from starting any such enterprise in Malok or any other area. Will it survive as a business though? So what is the point? The fact that these enterprises do exist in a town like Swellendam are exactly what creates jobs and draw people like “Another resident, Kgauta Mohlakoana, arrived in Swellendam after his brother said there would be job opportunities.”….as with many others. They are leaving places with less to offer as is their right. However the influx of so many jobseekers from worse run areas, also puts tremendous pressure on the resources of an already small tax paying base. It is not an easy task and help must be given where possible but the picture is much bigger considering the ineffective national government and crippling corruption and resource theft of so many outside government with no visible consequences.
    Burning down and destroying existing infrastructure is criminal and stupid beyond words considering all the article’s arguments about too little money being spent on the new township. Now there will be a hell of a lot less available.

  • A More Nuanced Perspective on Swellendam is Needed

    I read the article with a sense of disappointment. As a long-time resident who was born in this town, I must say that the depiction in the article is not fully representative of our community.

    Swellendam is an extremely attractive place to live, and I’m proud of the level of service available from both the public and private sectors. The municipal administration is competent, and the town itself is situated in one of the most scenic regions in South Africa. Our community is enriched by its diversity, and it’s disheartening to see an article that only cites a minority of unsatisfied citizens on the fringes of the political spectrum.

    Moreover, it is too simplistic to link poverty, which no doubt exists in our community, solely to racism at a local level. Poverty is a complex issue with structural causes that are best addressed at the national level. While acknowledging that poverty exists, attributing it solely to local factors misses the bigger picture.

    While no place is perfect, I believe it’s crucial to paint a balanced picture, one that reflects the good along with the areas that need improvement. The selective narrative presented in the article serves to skew public perception, and I would urge you to take a more nuanced view in your future reporting.

    • Rhett Foreman says:

      Very much agreed with your feedback, and unfortunately the DM strikes again – opinion described as fact and biased. As mentioned elsewhere, the poverty conundrum hasn’t been solved internationally or nationally. How does anyone expect a small, local arm of government, in the context of a very corrupt national government to solve this problem?

      The DM parades the feedback from indignant community members as fact, and does not consider the written feedback from the mayor, was his full feedback and interview listed here. But that again speaks to the bias.

      Apparently 107 innocent individuals were arrested, I would like then to ask that the responsible individuals step forward, for the torching of the municipal building. Likewise the looting of the stores in town and in Railton, zero mention is made of this. Why not interview the shop owners who suffered losses due to the looting coinciding with the so called peaceful march.

      Why label this municipality as corrupt/racist/poor at their jobs, but consider the 8 other provinces and the rest of municipalities across the country, and their respective audit outcomes. Consider how many of those are adequately servicing their paying, and non-paying residents. Consider how many rate payers have to self-service, whatever happened to taxation without representation. Consider how property rights are not respected, consider freedom of movement being impeded each and every-time a peaceful march is organised.

  • Jack Russell says:

    You seem to be of the group that forever rants on about rights. Everyone has the RIGHTS …….to produce as many children as they please and it is their RIGHT for the state – for which read other taxpayers – must provide them and their offspring with schools, housing, hospitals, jobs, social grants, etc, etc.

    What about OBLIGATIONS? To order your life responsibly? Not to produce offspring you don’t have the means to support? Not to arrive wherever you choose and whenever you choose and demand someone else provide all these lovely rights for you and at their cost?

    I would have thought that anyone with a basic education would understand what illogical and whimsical drivel has taken root in particularly Western societies

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “When the first peaceful protest happened, they were very ugly towards the people who live here at the back and even against us coloured people.”

    And there you have the whole shameful story. Just like the rest of the Cape, especially Cape Town, it’s the economic/political migrants running away from the ANC’s useless and crooked management of the Eastern Cape that has caused ‘their people’ to swarm down here. And the biggest sufferers? The REAL ‘indigent’ people of the region, the so-called ‘coloureds’ the descendants of the Khoikhoi, San, and so on. It is a total and utter disgrace.

    • Bob Kuhn says:

      Same issues here in Oudtshoorn where over 50% of our ”residents” claim indigent benefits having fled their anc Eastern Cape nightmare, Zimbabwe and a raft of other countries who marxist tyrannies oppress them. The burden placed in those who do pay simply cannot continue fund let alone afford this bottomless pit of entitlement and anc marxist communist socialism!

  • Denise Smit says:

    What a biased article born out the ideology of the reporter/s. Did you ask the new settlers where they came from and why to Swellendam? No of course not. You know there are no such places as white only suburbs. If you choose to go and live there you can do so, but you must be willing to pay the cost of taxes and everything attached to it. Why do you make this a group areas issue? .Did you verify that the people were called dogs? This is bad journalism not worthy of DM. You can have a cause that you want to put over. but do it objectively. Denise Smit

  • Charles Withington says:

    Not quite sure how you unite a town when you have a succession of banners with family crests Myburgh, Reitz, Steyn, Treurnicht etc . So these were the founding fathers – but what about all those other people – the the pruners, the woodcutters and who probably lived in the main dorp until moved to the “onder-dorp” under apartheid. Where they not people too ? Were their families less important ?

    • Denise Smit says:

      So all of us who have an Afrikaans surname must be ashamed and hide it, just by our surname we are criminals. Withington will be a more acceptable surname. You forget the atrocities of the Anglo Boer war where 30000 woman and children were murdered by the English and lots of Black farmworkers as well, where everything was burn to the ground and destroyed. And what about the stealing of the country rescources by Cecil John Rhodes, and the murders in his name in Zimbabwe. You must be very carefull who you point fingers to. We must move on. Denise Smit

  • What has the Municipal Manager got to say about this patently obvious result to their mismanagement?

  • I never thought that the Daily Maverick would choose to do selective reporting on a very serious issue.
    Lost all credibility.

    • Pet Bug says:

      Yes, I agree there is an editorial problem with DM.

      I fully support the publishing of opinion pieces, including advocacy reporting by writers who are driving a specific agenda. This article is in that field.

      Serious journalistic media houses such as DM can contribute to the national discussion of events by accepting such advocacy articles for publication.
      I think we all need to hear as many voices as possible.

      However, …, DM then also has to, if it wants to remain fiercely independent and objective, to inform their subscribers (paying) and readers, that an article is A) written by an advocacy journalist (and provide details of said writer’s affiliations, previous and present memberships, qualifications, etc.);
      and B) state the article is not necessarily the opinion of the DM.

      Unfortunately the article, and I have negatively commented previously about the same authors, comes across as biased, incurious, un-nuanced, and incorrect and possibly purposely ommitive and untrue.

      DM editor should do some introspection regarding the contradictions in their flowery journalistic self-congratulatory e-Mails I receive and this stuff they are publishing.
      There is a serious disconnect.
      Unless I have a very different view of what serious journalistic values are compared to DM.
      With the required consequences for DM.

  • Jennifer D says:

    Setting expectations that people should expect and complain about services where they do not pay for such is unacceptable. In the context of SA, only 9% of the population pay personal tax comprising 40% of SAs tax revenue. How does the author pretend to not understand that it would be impossible for any municipality to extend services to so many people without any funding. Where does the author think this should come from. Until poverty stricken South Africans realise that they have to support themselves, pick up their own rubbish (or don’t throw it in the streets), make their businesses and stop expecting other people to help them survive, we will continue in this path to disaster. The authors attempts to justify the abhorrent and stupid behaviour of people (burning down buildings will certainly not provide extra funding for their services) and allow them to continue to think they should sit and watch tv or play on their mobiles instead of coming up with ways to earn an income. Everyone’s survival is dependent on himself and it always has been.

    • Mervyn Bennun says:

      This is clearly a comment by someone with no worries. Jennifer D clearly blames the impoverished, who are living in such misery, for their own poverty. What should the wretched do, Jennifer D? Take in each other’s laundry? We need to ask, and to demand an answer to the question: why do we have an economic system where there is much work to be done, so many hands willing do it, and yet they are compelled to be idle? Corruption is involved, certainly, but that is not the root cause of the contradiction. The answer lies in the hands of those who would do the work themselves if given the chance; they must decide whether the system as a whole is tolerable if it means that they can be blamed for being its victims forced to live in wretched poverty.

  • Awareness Publishing Mike says:

    Daily Maverick, please, please! Spare us all the the suffering of having to listen those boring and repetitive ads before we listen to any of these articles. They only serve to deter your readers from reading any article by those two laughing jokers! We really don’t want to hear the same repetitive as twenty times a day!

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