Matjhabeng municipality: Rampant looting, illegal mining and theft could wipe out ailing entity

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Women from Mndozo village, Newcastle, dig for coal.
Women from Mndozo village, Newcastle, dig for coal.
Sibusiso Mdlalose
  • Unemployment and Covid-19 have severely affected Matjhabeng municipality.
  • The Free State municipality is dealing with theft and vandalism of its properties and infrastructure.
  • Illegal mining activities and cable theft are on the rise too.

Unemployment and closure of businesses in the Free State's mining towns has left one municipality with a burden of problems resting on its shoulders.

The Matjhabeng local municipality servicing Allanridge, Odendaalsrus, Welkom, and Virginia, is now grappling with increasing unemployment.

Matjhabeng is the Sesotho name for a place where people of different races meet.

The area is home to locals and foreigners from Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, who were attracted to the area by the gold mines. 

The municipality is also battling rampant looting and the destruction of its infrastructure and properties.

Among those targeted are municipal buildings and theft of municipal fences, electricity cables, and other valuables.

Looting takes place in both towns and in townships.

The most ailing towns are Meloding, Virginia, Thabong, and Welkom.

Two weeks ago, thieves struck "gold" when they stole electricity cables worth R5 million.

Cemeteries are not spared either.

READ |  Five Free State municipal employees in court on fraud, forgery charges

Financial implications accompanying the Covid-19 pandemic have also added to the problems facing the ailing municipality.

Municipal spokesperson Kgojane Matutle said the recent cable theft had left six suburbs in Welkom in the dark.

"Our buildings and other properties are under siege from criminals," Matutle said.

"These illegal activities have been going on unabated for a while now. They have been stealing our valuables since early last year. Early last year, a group of heavily armed men stormed our municipal building in Meloding."

Matutle said:

They first removed the fence before heading into our building. They then broke down doors, looted furniture and other valuable items. They also vandalised our councillors' office.

Theft and damage to Matjhabeng properties first started sporadically, and now it has worsened as thugs operate with seeming impunity.

"They first destroyed cemeteries in Virginia. They have now moved to Welkom. Millions of rands have been spent in replacing fences and toilets at various cemeteries.  

"Those new concrete and palisade fencing materials have been stolen too. One of the gates that were stolen at a cemetery in Meloding was later recovered at a residential place.

"Another big challenge is that after stealing fencing materials, they are targeting graves. They are now stealing grave numbers and any steel or iron objects covering graves. Tombstones are being damaged too," Matutle said.

Population

Matutle said the municipality, with a population of 480 000 citizens, has over 150 000 unemployed adults.

"Many lost their jobs when about ten gold mines closed their shafts. Some companies that were supplying those mines were also forced to shut doors, leaving many residents poor.

"We are seeing an escalating number of job seekers and beggars in our streets. Many foreign nationals who were working in mines can't access social grants. The question is ... how do they survive?

READ | Four arrested for illegal mining of chrome worth almost R1 million in the North West

"One of the biggest challenges is increasing illegal mining activities. The remaining gold mines are complaining about zama zamas. Most of the illegal miners are former mineworkers who have the skill and knowledge of mining," said Matutle.

Matjhabeng's only hope of being taken rescued from the quagmire it finds itself in is provincial and national government intervention.

Matutle said senior government structures are aware of the predicament that could destroy what remains of the municipality. 

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