POLITICS

What I Learned From My Three Days in Coligny

HuffPost SA's Marc Davies and Pontsho Mabena spent time in Coligny trying to understand the causes of the violent protests.

12/05/2017 05:48 SAST | Updated 12/05/2017 09:13 SAST

One of the remaining nyalas ominously patrols Coligny's Voortrekker Street, passing a salon as women having their hair coloured gaze silently into the mirror. New flatscreen televisions are carried into a store past windows shattered during looting days before.

Life goes on in the town after recurring violence and simmering racial tension, even as the circumstances surrounding the death of 16-year old Matlhomola Mosweu remain unclear. Scores of community members continue to decry what they see as a deliberate racist attack, while others lament the anger towards the murder-accused over a "tragic accident".

Police, ostensibly overwhelmed by the extent of sporadic violence and loss of control in recent weeks, called in reinforcements. Nyalas and vans have patrolled streets and the town's perimeter while, on Wednesday, a police helicopter circled above the Tlhabologang township.

Community anger
A day before, crowds gathered in Thlabologang waiting for community safety MEC Mpho Motlhabane's report on progress made in a community dialogue. Some gathered in a circle sang "Dubul'ibhunu" ['Shoot the Boer'] before his arrival.

During his address, vocal members of the crowd repeatedly interrupted the MEC, lamenting the local magistrate court's decision to grant bail to the two farmers accused of his murder and refusing to send their children back to school until there was justice.

Motlhabane was unceremoniously dismissed, sung off the bakkie-cum-podium, after a failed attempt to convince the crowd that working together they could do more. Hours later, new fires blazed in poverty-stricken Tlhabologang, and irate individuals pummeling stones at police were met with rubber bullets and stun grenades.

Political profiteering
The ongoing turmoil in Coligny attracted a wave of intervention from political organisations across the spectrum.

At Mosweu's funeral, North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo denounced "white superiority" in the country, in no uncertain terms calling Mosweu's death a racist attack. EFF Commander-in-chief EFF Malema, in response to AfriForum's deployment of private security, said the organization had sent them to "protect white racists".

AfriForum said Malema's statement was inaccurate "war talk" and they had sent private security to protect private property and wouldn't patrol streets or get in the way of police. Solidarity Movement chairperson Flip Buys said he was concerned pronouncements on Coligny, including COSATU's most recently, could "contribute to a new cycle of violence".

The roots of the town's trauma, according to Buys, have more to do with poor service delivery by a bankrupt municipality and promises made by politicians yet to be honoured. He said race relations in Coligny have been positive in past and the situation has been blown out of proportion.

'Haves and have-nots'
Many speaking to HuffPost SA disagreed. Farm worker Katleho Bogatsu said: "It's about the haves and the have-nots here. Black people are on their own. We must work for the money which they pay us, but they behave like they don't need us.

"The painful thing here is that some of our fellow farm workers die suspicious deaths at the hands of the employers. We hear and see these things, but because we are not protected, we just must carry on with life".

Another resident, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: "We don't want to loot because we like it. We are showing our own frustration because justice is not served and justice serves those with money. The relationship between whites and blacks in Coligny is very tense. We have many farm owners not treating black people well."

For many people present at the MEC's address, the death of Mosweu wasn't an aberration blown out of proportion but flagrant disregard for black life by two "racist farmers".

Life in the 'well of sadness'
Before Mosweu's death and the subsequent turmoil, Coligny's socio-economic profile looked much like a long list of many other towns in the country. The town is decayed, roads falling apart and recreational facilities few. Tlhabologang, down the road from the central business district, is even worse. Sewage flows through the streets in some areas and decent housing and ablutions are scant.

Read: Lichtenburg And Coligny: The Tensions That Lie Beneath

Joblessness is also palpable in the town. Unemployment is rife and most people rely on social grants. Many sit for hours on end against empty shop walls and those who do have work of some kind earn cents.

A barber from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who introduced himself as Musa, is one such entrepreneur hoping to make ends meet. His business, operating from a corrugated iron structure, was looted, his window smashed and small items on sale including eggs and chips -- his very livelihood -- stolen amid the chaos. He is one of many black people in town who is a victim of both a grim local economy and harm to his business.

Another foreign national, a Bangladeshi shopkeeper who asked to remain anonymous, said he is "too nervous to return to the location" where he's done business for seven years. Perturbed that his customers whom he knows would rob him, he said, "When these people don't have money, they go crazy". Although none have been killed in Coligny, he stressed the precarious position of Bangladeshi nationals in South Africa, confused as to why they are targets in various places where they "try to be part of the community".

Parallel to Coligny's main street, a sun-drenched Afrikaans man approached me, ostensibly looking for a pair of ears as he begins to detail his long life in Coligny, originally named 'Treurfontein' – 'well of sadness'. Most of his family is dead from illness or working elsewhere. He is apparently in pain from illness, lamenting the R1,300 he receives from the state. "Dis vokol geld," he says gazing down the dusty road before announcing his departure.

A town on the brink
Businesses in Coligny are open and on the street on Thursday moments of laughter could be heard on the streets as people got on with their day. Beneath the potentially fleeting calm, however, is a town still on the brink. Poor service delivery, decayed infrastructure, considerable inequality -- even where there isn't much wealth in the town to share -- and perhaps hopelessness undoubtedly set the scene for fires to rage in Coligny.

Interactions with many in the town also suggest it may be difficult to find more than a semblance of a "rainbow nation", for better or worse, being forged here. The apparent weight of historical injustice in the town, as well as the brutality of present indifference to its decline, has left it in tatters. It is telling, still, how remarkably diverse the reasons given by shopkeepers, bystanders, politicians, community members and so on for Coligny's turmoil are in a town so compact.

As many analysts have already noted ad nauseum, Coligny encapsulates - in a dorp with a single main road - the persisting contradictions of life in South Africa and the struggle to forge a meaningful way out of the fray.