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Swellendam community centre burnt down as residents rampage over electricity hike and indigent policy

Swellendam community centre burnt down as residents rampage over electricity hike and indigent policy
The Swellendam Thusong Centre Service Centre was torched on Wednesday. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Police and protesters exchange rubber bullets and stones as executive mayor labels violence a ‘campaign of terror’.

A protest has once more turned violent in Swellendam. On Wednesday morning the Thusong service centre — a municipal building — and a vehicle were set on fire.

This protest comes after a month of tensions in this Western Cape town. The main issues, according to the protesters, are high electricity tariffs and the town’s indigent policy. They demanded to speak to Mayor Francois du Rand.

A peaceful protest took place on 30 August. Then a memorandum was handed over to the mayor. But a protest earlier in August saw a municipal office torched and shops looted.

Several roads were blocked by bricks in the Railton area of Swellendam on Wednesday. The N2 was also closed by the police for most of the morning.

Swellendam municipal building fire

Some people tried to put out the fire. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Swellendam protests

Police used teargas and rubber bullets to disperse and stop protesters from moving onto the N2 highway. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Swellendam is divided by the N2 highway. The main town on the north-west of the road is well-off, and is a popular tourist destination. On the south-east is Railton, a township but with formal housing. Alongside it is Plakenspark, an informal settlement mostly made up of shacks. The protesters have mainly been from Plakenspark.

GroundUp witnessed a standoff between the police and protesters on the hill across from the informal settlement. Rubber bullets and tear gas were fired by the police to disperse the protesters and stop them from going onto the highway. Some protesters threw stones. The protests started overnight after community members called for a “shutdown”.

Vehicle fire

This fire vehicle was torched outside the Thusong centre. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

It was difficult to talk to any of the 100 or so protesters because they were scattered across a wide area and hiding from the police. But in a memo they wrote for the 30 August protest they complained that their concerns about electricity and the town’s indigent policy were unresolved. (The indigent policy deals with how much free electricity and water low-income households are entitled to.)

At issue is the 18.5% increase in electricity tariffs that was implemented in July, and a decision that households qualifying for the indigent policy benefits would have to reapply for them annually.

Plakenspark informal settlement

Many of the protesters were from the Plakenspark informal settlement. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Swellendam resident Enrico Merts came to see what was happening. He said people were burning and throwing tyres from early in the morning. “It was difficult this morning. I don’t know where the mayor’s people are so they can talk to the community.”

Referring to the burnt Thusong centre, he said: “Who’s going to pay for this?” He said the building is used for community meetings, applying for IDs and social grants. “This is the only place. This is terrible.”

His daughter could not attend school on Wednesday because it was closed due to the protest action.

“We had a meeting with the mayor but he never came back after that. My electricity is also too much now,” said Merts. “I had a baby born on Mandela Day. So it’s difficult for me.”

Enrico Merts, Swellendam

Enrico Merts said that he was told not to bring his children to school today. Standing outside the torched Thusong centre with his daughter, Merts said the community relies on the services provided in the building. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

In a statement titled “Swellendam once again under attack by a campaign of terror”.

Mayor du Rand said that the destruction of the service centre was a “significant setback for the entire community, especially residents of Railton”.

“At the same time, a fire truck deployed to douse the fire engulfing the Thusong Centre has also been set alight,” he wrote.

He said the municipality “has made considerable efforts to engage indigent residents of Railton who qualify for subsidised services and to assist with registering them”.

He defended the annual renewal requirement: “This was done to ensure those who could afford services, were no longer unfairly benefitting from a system that is meant for those residents who live in dire conditions and need subsidised services”.

“This change in policy by the municipality has evidently angered those who felt entitled to continue drawing free services from the municipality when they did not qualify for these subsidies. They wanted to continue benefitting at the cost of indigent residents.”

ANC Overberg Acting Regional Secretary Raymond Nongxaza said that the protests were a result of the municipality’s unwillingness to engage. But he condemned the violence at Wednesday’s protest.

The municipality, on Tuesday, threatened “legal consequences” for violent behaviour. DM

A road into Railton is blocked off with rocks. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

First published by GroundUp.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Terril Scott says:

    ANC agents provocateur at work. Where they don’t get to rule, they aim to make the area ungovernable. Surprised necklacing has not returned now that they are getting desperate.

    • Campbell Tyler says:

      Dont you think it could be just a little more complicated than this Terril? I like the objective tone of this report, no particular sides taken, clearly communication is not happening sufficiently, which needs two willing voices at least.

    • Denise Smit says:

      This is ANC but also EFF sabotage in a DA municipality. Where there is fire and destruction there is EFF involved. Both parties are stoking this to take the attention away from the burning Johannesburg and areas in ANC government without water, sanitation and crumbling infrastructure. The fire broke out in the night, not during a protest. When the fire vehicle turned up it was also torched preventing the fire to be attended to . The picture of the community member with the barrel with water was later today after the building had been burned already. How can the people insist that because they reside in a certain area they automatically qualify for free services. There is nothing innocent about this, you are naive Mr Tyler. Denise Smit

      • Steve Davidson says:

        Well said Denise. It’s at times like this that the people I really feel sorry for are the First Nation people, aka ‘coloureds’ who are the real ‘indigent’ people, and weren’t encouraged by the ANC to emigrate from the Eastern Cape to cause this nonsense. They should be sent back there!

  • Kenneth Arundel says:

    It’s such a pity we have a culture of breaking what works when we dont get our way. Its totally understandable that people are frustrated but burning down a community centre seems like cutting your nose off to spite your face. At least some in that community know this and will hopefully transfer their thoughts to others. What a great pity.

  • Jim F. says:

    Ah yes, the requirement to apply annually to ensure your criteria are correct, with the two- faced municipality. Several implied “non indigent” communities falling under Swellendam administration have no services. As in, no water supply, no sewerage provision, no electricity, and zero road maintenance in years (dust roads). Good luck with an application for “free services” under such circumstances. Notwithstanding this situation of zero provision of an infrastructure the Swellendam municipality came ups with the wheeze of a unilaterally applied “infrastructure charge” which unlike a rates charge is subject to VAT. Enquiries as to which infrastructure they were referring to, it transpires that it is a Railton fund to fix potholes. Since both the municipal offices and the community centre and fire vehicles have been torched, can we assume this “unfair” charge will increase to the detriment of those with zero services. The good citizens of Railton are not the only disgruntled rate payers.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Received some voice notes ,I know people in Railton,Swellendam .They call the people rioting “inkommers”.In other words they come from other areas and haven’t been there long

    • Ben Harper says:

      Exactly – shipped in by the anc`

    • Wayne Ashbury Ashbury says:

      These “inkommers” are pervasive in many many Western Cape towns. The “inkommers” and “foreigners” are fleeing their areas in droves to access better opportunities. The ANC will never acknowledge that their poor governance in their regions are creating these issues. ANC you have failed miserably!!!

  • Rob Wilson says:

    Direct result of the ANC’s social policy. Instead of building an economy to employ educated people and give them self respect and the ability to support themselves, they are led into the abyss of poor education, free this, free that, social grants and a life of entitlement. Now the money has run out. As any person who has a very basic understanding of the way the world works. Sounds great until you run out of other peoples money.

  • Andre Swart says:

    Why America is GREAT!

    Because of their policy
    ‘Shoot to kill arsonists!’

    South Africa needs a ‘State of emergency’ where special orders are issued to the military, private security and ordinary citizens to ‘shoot to kill’ arsonists and to ‘shoot to detain’ looters of shops etc.

    There’s no easy way out of anarchy!

  • Tony Reilly says:

    Please do not ever rebuild what has been burnt down. These people need to live with the consequences of their actions.

    • Pet Bug says:

      Municipal and provincial owned community infrastructure has a rotational maintenance program for buildings every 7 to 10 years (at least in the WC).
      I hate saying this but agree that maybe buildings damaged or destroyed due to excessive community vandalism and arson should miss their next maintenance program.
      And this be communicated to the community.

      They too have a responsibility, as part of privileges they receive, to stop the destructive behaviour.

  • Johan Buys says:

    This seems from 120km away like a repeat of the stupid CPT taxi war that cost ordinary people R4b in two weeks.

    On the one side you have an objectively measured technocrat quoting this and that law that must be enforced.

    On another side you have reality. Everybody with half a brain knows what the consequences of enforcement will be in a community that practically and objectively has no options.

    There is today 20Sept absolutely and entirely no difference in CPT taxi situation since May 2023. 5 million workers were disrupted and unpaid from 75 million shifts. Factories are at late Sept running weekend shifts to try and catch up. Go JP, go :/ :/

    My impression is the same obstinate attitude of dislocating theory and reality is at play in Swellendam.

    • Nit Wit says:

      Everyone with half a brain can also see that handing out free services to people who can afford to pay while the middle class are taxed to death is not a sustainable solution. Other than maybe some work needing to be done around communication, I don’t see anything unreasonable about annual means tests to see who is trying their hand of entitlement.
      Remember the discovery last year of nearly 178 000 public servants receiving social grants they were not entitled to?

      At some point someone has to draw the line in the sand regardless of what short term chaos it causes. That is the only way to restore law and order and ensure that municipalities can remain a going concern. We need lots more Margaret Thatchers in this world. Talking does not work if the language is violence

  • Ben Harper says:

    This is 100% anc driven.

    • Denise Smit says:

      EFF/ANC. Read also the article today by the HRC about the water investigation in Kwazulu Natal. They recommend people in certain areas must not be automatically indigent but means tests must be done. Denise Smit

  • Bob Kuhn says:

    In Oudtshoorn the “paying ratepayers” fund just over 50% of the total population comprising mostly ” inkommers without any direct assistance from provincial or the anc government.

    A recent peaceful protest by beleaguered ratepayers was met by the DA launching a high court act action against the organisers….

    This u ding and rampant siakism in small, rural towns is simply not sustainable and will be the death knell of these old and once vibrant communities forcing most back to the he’ll-hole cities crumbling around the country.

    And yet the anc sit in their ivory towers as if all is well….phhht!

  • Roger Sheppard says:

    What can be said when ONE word says it all: “INKOMMERS”!
    And Railton – and a hundred more like that area – NEVER hear what can be done, for them and by them –
    because the SABC has all information broadcasts tied up by ANC Cadres! Only the preached NDR language is allowed!
    ANC are disgustingly disingenuous, dishonestly so actually; an immoral bunch with no conscience.

  • t.ama says:

    So they set alight the community that was being used to provide services to them. And they want to continue to protest for lack of services. What an irony!

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