Once a tourist hotspot, Lydenburg now lingers on the brink of decay

Writing: Theto Mahlakoana

JOHANNESBURG - Besieged with a series of local government failures, residents of Thaba Chweu municipality in Mpumalanga consider the 2021 elections their last chance to bring the area back from the brink of collapse.

Serving as the corridor to the picturesque Mpumalanga lowveld, a popular tourist attraction, a closer look at its towns and townships reveals the municipality is the opposite of the beauty of the sprawling mountain ranges that surrounds it. The provision of services such as water, lighting and assistance to indigent households has been neglected, with the municipal officials blaming lack of sufficient funding to perform the basic functions.

The ghastly state of the roads in Lydenburg - where the seat of the Thaba Chweu local government is located - is telling about the state of the once immaculate town. Potholes and litter are spread through the streets of the small area, which was voted the cleanest town in 2009. It now has online traveller reviews warning motorists to use alternative routes when driving to the rest of the Mpumalanga province. From the trout fishing town of Dullstroom that is highly reliant on tourism and agriculture to stay afloat to Lydenburg, motorists negotiate potholes in their path.

Resident and owner of a guesthouse in Lydenburg Francis le Roux says she has watched the town she fell in love with at first sight fall apart, with the municipality abdicating its responsibilities.

“It was so beautifully kept; green trees, beautiful gardens. I remember the hospital used to win the award for the best garden in Mpumalanga every year. It has declined, all the way… depressing decline. I have watched this town go down to a point that when I drive to pick n pay which is on my street, I am depressed when I come back,” she said.

But Thaba Chweu mayor Fridah Nkadimeng explained to Eyewitness News that they are working on this, referring to newly launched projects to rehabilitate some of the most problematic roads.

Residents said they don’t expect these to be completed, describing them as a temporary measure to lull voters ahead of the 1 November polls.

“As I am speaking, we are working on the roads right now. We are working on the Potgieter road. We are now busy with the Voortrekker one. Again, don’t forget we are a mining town – all the trucks from Limpopo pass here. Our roads, robots, storm water drains were broken.”

What the mayor doesn’t mention though, is that the municipality underspent its capital spending budget meant for infrastructure projects by 27,7% in the past financial year, as she pleaded poverty as the reason for the non-refurbishment of the roads.

Resident Sello Malepe said the municipality has failed to capitalise on the economic opportunities in its reach. With over six mining productions in the area and the tourism boost, Nkadimeng said they were struggling to raise funds beyond the budget allocations made by the treasury.

Malepe describes the budget excuse as “hogwash”.

“Look at our town ... you can tell with the potholes [at] all our entrances, the four cardinal entrances of Thaba Chweu. Yet we have a municipality, and they are always reporting for duty. For what? We are approaching the local elections; they are expecting us to cast our vote and we are asking for what? What is it that should prompt us to go and cast our vote whereas there is no service delivery?”

It gets worse.

The small community of Coromandel in the municipality has been pleading for urgent intervention to address the decay they live in as sewage spillage threatens to collapse their homes in vain. They appear to bear the brunt of the weaknesses of the municipality.

The natural beauty and rich agricultural land are overshadowed by a permanent stench in the air in parts of Coromandel and sewage flows past homes into a river where people say they also draw water for daily use. Coromandel lies between Lydenburg and Dullstroom.

When Eyewitness News arrived in the area, the temperature measured a scorching 32 degrees in. Some locals took refuge from the heat under trees outside their homes. But some were forced to stay inside the walls of their government-subsidised houses or RDPs, with windows and doors shut. At first glance, there was nothing ominous about the sight. But the closer one got to the houses, the foul, acidic stench that fills the air explained why the children and adults were huddled in their living rooms.

“When we tell them the sewage makes us sick because we really can’t keep living like this, they tell us they will come and fix it but there has been no difference. There’s human faeces, Pampers and all manner of filth coming out of this drain and it's right on our doorstep”.

Mbali Sibanyoni reluctantly walked out of her cracked house to speak to us. She explained that although the smell permeates through their home whether the windows are closed or not, they confined themselves to their four walls because it was simply too dangerous to venture outside because of daily snake sightings near the spillage of human waste. But they must go out at some point as they have no running water, despite visible abandoned infrastructure that was meant to deliver the critical resource into their homes.

“We drink water from the river on a stream up the road, so we drink dirty water that is contaminated by the sewage and to get clean water we must go very very far. The water is always brown. We are tired of the empty promises, it’s been a long time since we’ve been living like this. And now they come to tell us to vote so that things can be better, but still, we don’t see anything that is better,” she said.

Abram Mogola has lived in Coromandel since 1985. He explained that they have always had great hope for the small settlement, which is on the hill of an 8,000 hectare farm partly owned by some residents in the township through a government land ownership programme that secured them the land in 2003.

Mogola said he has come to expect little from the government since but was still perplexed at its failure to address the water and sewage issues that have overwhelmed them for years.

"One thing they do is promise us that they will fix the sewage. I am relying on the river water. That river water, the sewage enters that water, so I have to drink that water and it is not safe. The sewage is dangerous and it will affect our health. We live in a time of COVID and we were supposed to have that water, but it is one thing we are not having,” he said.

Thaba Chweu Mayor Fridah Nkadimeng blamed the Human Settlements Department for a failure to provide the Coromandel residents with a safe and clean environment - a function of local government.

“They [Human Settlements] built those houses on an area that they were not supposed to. Now we are requesting because they had the problem of the sewer there, to say they need to resolve that problem and they promised us that they are going to remove those people there to a cleaner place because people can’t live under those conditions and the district municipality is coming in to assist with the issue of the sewer,” Nkadimeng explained.

She stated that they cannot fix the sewer due to lack of funds and are awaiting help from the district municipality, a limitation she brings up often to justify the failures in the area. Yet only 1,6% of their budget was spent on maintaining infrastructure as opposed to 8% as set out in regulations.

She flat out denied that some of the residents in Coromandel relied on the river for their water supply despite Eyewitness News contending that during its visit to the area it found dry water taps that appear never to have been functional since its installation.

As politicians, including Nkadimeng’s comrades in the ANC, campaign for votes in the area, the strip where Sibanyoni and others’ homes are located is ignored. Locals say no one dares to step close to the spillage that has haunted the residents for years now.

Democratic Alliance councillor Spiros Couvaras said incompetence and not a lack of finances were behind the failures in the municipality. He related several examples where simple guidelines and regulations were not followed, to the detriment of the residents.

“They’ve got no idea how to run the municipality. As long as their palms are greased, they are happy.”

“They have got people in charge that have no idea and zero inclination of what service delivery is. They do not know what happens with a water leak, they do not know when the power is out. They do not know how to handle funds. They appoint consulting engineers for mechanical things, and they can only do civil, and no one is taking them to task. When you ask questions, they say 'what do you know' and try to keep it quiet. We have a social worker who is our municipal manager,” said Couvaras.

The municipality’s indigent households are also reeling from the pain of being marginalised.

Reneilwe Mashego of extension eight in Mashishing township says she has struggled to register for services meant for poor households for over a decade after the government allocated her a stand and promised to build her an RDP house.

The unemployed mother of four who is in her early 50s wore a black T-shirt with a fading picture of President Cyril Ramaphosa on the chest as she decried the maltreatment received at the hands of officials when she went knocking for help.

“They moved us from Matamong to Skhila ... we protested and they gave us stands here. When I ask about the RDP they say I am registered as having an RDP house. I asked them to show me where I signed for the house and they don’t want to help me.”

“Now, when I walk into the municipal office to ask for help, they all sneak out of their offices and leave me there by myself. I am tired. I have shouted and fought and I am now just tired,” said Mashego.

Mashego should be receiving 50 kilowatts of electricity and six kilolitres of free water per month – but points us to a heap of wood that she relies on for cooking just outside the makeshift shack she and her four children call home.

Shockingly, when the mayor was questioned about the challenges raised by residents regarding the lack of assistance that must be extended to indigent households, she claimed the poor had no interest in being registered on their database.

“We also employed officials to go door to door and make sure to collect that kind of information. Some will refuse, and some will give information but we still think that there is a lot of indigents that are lying there because if they don’t want to register it’s a problem”.

Despite all the failures she flagged, Nkadimeng insisted the municipality achieved some successes.

“Lydenburg is still a good story to tell even if you have those challenges that I have mentioned and also Graskop, we have a good story to tell there even if there are some of the issues that I mentioned we are dealing with. Sabie [has an influx of] informal settlements, there we have a problem,” she said.

The residents fear that if the current cohort of an ANC majority returns to council after the local government elections, the deterioration will simply accelerate.