Bethlehem residents have decided to roll up their sleeves and fix the city so that it can once again be known as the jewel of the Eastern Free State.
Bethlehem is the most important city in the Eastern Free State, with the main truck route between Durban and Cape Town (the N5 highway) running through the city.
Thirty years ago it was a great city, with an economic boom as businesses opened in the city and tourists flocked to it.
Today things stand still. Residents move out of the city and businesses close their doors.
Residents are drowning in sewage, suffering from potholes, or rather dongas in the roads and are without water or power every other day. Illegal rubbish heaps spring up like weeds and the grass is hip-high in places.
All this due to poor service delivery.
“Bethlehem is just a cookie-cutter impression of the rest of the country where corruption prevails in municipalities, infrastructure is not maintained due to municipalities’ bankruptcy, lack of expertise and because there is no longer political will,” says Isoldé Laesecke, a independent councilor in the Dihlabeng local municipality.
‘The community has power’
Although this picture looks bleak, there is still hope amid a surge among residents to take ownership of the city.
“The solution lies in the community, not in a political party,” says Laesecke, who works at grassroots level himself. “And this is clearly visible in the neighborhoods where residents have already started to intervene. It is clean and tidy.”
According to Laesecke, it is positive to see how these residents’ actions slowly but surely influence others.
RNews drove through the city with Laesecke and saw in some neighborhoods how the grass in the parks, on the sidewalks and in the medians was cut neatly and short.
Laesecke pointed out the one park and said that “a man on his lawnmower-tractor regularly cuts the grass”.
“We have learned to do things for ourselves. We have to realize again that my world doesn’t just end in my yard. We’re going out of that yard.”
Apart from residents’ intervention in the communities, civil rights organizations such as AfriForum work to improve residents’ living conditions.
The organization runs neighborhood watches to increase safety in the city, works at the political level in the municipality, cuts grass in cemeteries and helps with water plants.
Workers from the organization can be seen on the roads with their AfriForum jackets on a daily basis, fixing potholes.
“AfriForum has already used 160 tonnes of tar to fix potholes,” says Marc Timmins, chairman of AfriForum in Bethlehem.
Timmins is the owner of Bethlehem Brake and Clutch and has lived in Bethlehem for 30 years.
“In these 30 years, the city has deteriorated significantly. To get the city back to how it was, we have to step in and work ourselves.
“We have to think about our future and how I will leave my legacy to my son. My son has to take over the business from me one day. That’s why I get my hands dirty today to make the future of my child better.”
Women take pitfalls
In the streets of Bethlehem, you will see two women, Hannetjie van Veenhuyzen and Belinda Jooste, with a bag of tar in hand fixing potholes alone. These women have fixed up to nine holes in one day.
Van Veenhuyzen, owner of Modern Hair, a shop that sells hair products, and Jooste, consulting engineer on roads from QnA Consulting, squeeze an hour or two out of their day to fix potholes in their private capacity.
The women rely on donations, but have already paid more than R1 000 out of their own pockets for tar.
“I get childishly excited when someone drops off bags of tar from me,” says Van Veenhuyzen.
Jooste moved to Bethlehem in March this year and her path crossed with Van Veenhuyzen’s early on. Van Veenhuyzen grew up in Bethlehem and was away for 33 years until she moved back five years ago.
“I have the willingness and Belinda the knowledge and together we make a good team. We both also have a passion for community work,” says Van Veenhuyzen.
According to the women, people’s mentality “that they don’t have to lift a finger because they pay taxes” must change, otherwise the city will further decline.
“We have to stop being negative and complaining and instead try to make a difference. The hole we stop is one less pothole,” says Jooste.
In 2011 with the development boom in the city, the municipality had a report compiled in which it was found that the city’s sewage and water systems were already too small for the development.
“That report was thrown into a closet somewhere and ignored,” says Laesecke.
The sewage and water system today is not only too small for the infrastructure of the city, but also old, because it has not been maintained over the years. The municipality does not have money to upgrade the systems.
“That is why today we are left with hordes of water leaks and sewage pouring out of manholes. The system cannot handle the amount of sewage.”
The sewage pumping station was recently enlarged after years of fighting for almost R2 million, but according to Laesecke the station is still too small.
Laesecke says the city’s infrastructure does not allow him to invest further and that is why so many young people move away to look for opportunities in the bigger cities.
“There is no more development here due to the municipality’s failure to deliver services. It goes hand in hand with our high unemployment rate.”
In the two main streets, Muller- and Kerkstraat, the potholes are almost unavoidable and there are also no lines to separate the lanes from each other. Sanral started painting temporary stripes on Tuesday.
Sanral intends to rebuild the N5 highway that runs through Bethlehem in the middle of next year. The road agency announced last month that it will spend more than R8 billion over three years on the national roads in the Free State to refurbish the roads.
“The N5 route through the city is a big headache. “Besides the lorries breaking up the road, lorry drivers who sleep in the city also attract prostitution and crime,” says Laesecke.
The Dihlabeng local municipality, which serves Bethlehem, Fouriesburg, Paul Roux, Clarens and Rosendal, is currently without leadership, with four director positions, as well as the municipal manager position which is vacant.
The position of the chief financial officer has been vacant since December 2020 with officials being repeatedly appointed to the positions on an acting basis.
These positions include the director of technical services and infrastructure, community service, corporate services, local economic development and the chief financial officer who are currently filled on an acting basis.
More photos of garbage and sewage in Bethlehem:
The municipality’s executive mayor, Tseki James Tseki (43), and the former municipal manager, Busa Petrus Molatseli (57), were arrested in June for alleged fraud, theft, corruption, money laundering and breach of the Municipal Financial Management Act .
“As long as the municipality delays making permanent appointments in these key positions, the lack of continuity and steady management in these departments will continue to lead to poor service delivery,” says Lieb Liebenberg, FF Plus board member in the Dihlabeng local municipality.
“Dihlabeng needs stability in the municipal management. Budgets for the past two financial years, which were signed off by three different acting municipal managers, must now be executed by a newly appointed municipal manager.”