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.