Bloody clashes and looting over plan to merge two counties

Looting in the Zamdela neighborhood of Sasolburg. 
 
South Africa’s image has suffered over the past year due to repeated eruptions of violence, notably during the miners’ protests. The new year is also starting off badly, with further deadly clashes between police and protesters.
 
In Sasolburg, a city located 85 kilometres from Johannesburg, violent riots have resulted in two deaths, 256 arrests, and scores of burnt cars and looted shops. Residents of Zamdela, one of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods, took to the streets earlier this week to protest a plan to merge the county of Metsimahalo – to which the city of Sasolburg belongs – with the neighbouring county of Ngwathe, which is less prosperous.
 
The trouble began on Monday, when protesters attacked Zamdela’s police station. During the clashes that followed, police fired live rounds at protesters, killing one person. Another person died under unclear circumstances during the looting of a store.
 
Rioting and looting. VIdeo by our Observer Aldrin Sampear. 
 
Sasolburg gets its name from the petrochemical giant Sasol, South Africa’s second-biggest company, whose headquarters are located in the city. The company’s activities are a great boon to Metsimaholo county’s economy. According to regional authorities, the merger of the two counties will allow for a better repartition of riches, and that’s what scares the protesters.
 
A shack on fire in Zamdela on Tuesday. Photo by our Observer Aldrin Sampear.
Contributors

“Protesters see this project as a form of favouritism toward Ngwathe county”

Aldrin Sampear lives in Johannesburg, where he works as a journalist for Jacaranda, a local radio station. He covered the clashes in Zambdela.
  
I arrived in the Zamdela neighourdhood on Monday, when the protests began. The day before, a meeting was supposed to be held between Sasolburg residents and local leaders, but for some unknown reason, the latter never showed. This prompted residents to stage a protest. They felt hadn’t been properly consulted in this merger business.
 
There are several reasons for which they are against this project. First, there’s the fact that Metsimaholo is richer than Ngwathe, notably thanks to Sasol’s presence. Zamdela is a poor neighbourhood, with a high unemployment rate, but some of its inhabitants work for Sasol. For them, a merger might mean more competition. I think that their difficult living conditions are the main reason behind this upheaval.
 
The sentiment that the merger is meant to benefit Ngwathe was fuelled by the fact that the project was initiated by Ace Magushule, the premier of the Free State province, in which these counties are located. Magushule hails from Parys, which is in Ngwathe county. The protesters thus saw this project as a form of favouritism toward Ngwathe. This is exacerbated by the fact that the new, merged county would be called just Ngwathe.
 
"Several people told me that some policemen even took part in the looting"
 
I think the police were caught off guard by this violence. Zamdela is a small neighbourhood, so the local police had to call in colleagues from other neighbourhoods to help them, but that still wasn’t enough. In the end, they just stood by while looters attacked shops. Several people told me that some policemen even took part in the looting.
 
On Wednesday, the Free State Interior Minister made an announcement on a local radio station, explaining that the merger project was suspended. This immediately brought calm back to the city. Residents started cleaning up the streets. The minister did not say that this project was entirely dropped, but I don’t know if local residents understood this nuance. So it’s possible that trouble could start anew.
 
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