Parys - a town with bad taste
SITTING in a restaurant in the Free State town of Parys, the waiter recommends water from the bottle instead of the tap.
Several hours later, in Thumahole, a blanket-wrapped woman waiting patiently at a makeshift township water point advises a visitor to boil the water before using it.
"Many times it smells like paraffin," says Rachelle Mankoama, of Abazimali informal settlement.
For the past several months, the town's dubious water supply and general lack of service delivery has been leaving a bad taste in the mouths of visitors and locals.
Resident Hannetjie Fourie, sitting at one of the many main street coffee shops, said the water situation had affected businesses.
"They have to buy bottled water for the shops. All this costs more."
Fourie said many tourists wanted their money back after tasting or bathing in the water.
"Tourism-dependant businesses have suffered a lot," Fourie said.
Car guard Mariette Swarts hears many complaints from visitors.
"They do not talk softly about it," she said.
Many visitors want directions to toilets or bottled water suppliers.
Coffee shop owner Graatjie Hills said the water quality was an irritation, but there were ways to deal with the problem.
"Parys Info (a local business body) warns us in time and we're managing by planning ahead and buying bottled water in bulk."
A local bar owner said he could not make ice from water in Parys, and had to import water from the neighbouring town of Sasolburg.
Refuse removal remains another problem for restaurants on the main street.
Three young women in Zuma section in Thumahole believe the "bad" water is carrying diseases.
Sitting in a bare yard near a recently erected shack, one woman said they had not had water for two days, and had to walk far to another water point.
In town, two waitresses also refused to talk about the water problem if named.
Residents, business and labour groups pointed fingers at the Ngwathe municipality, claiming bad service delivery, corrupt officials and political scheming were the root cause of problems in Parys.
Recent municipal labour strikes have not helped, and the Ngwathe municipality's administration has been in turmoil since last year.
The ruling ANC, which runs the municipality, asked executive mayor Jonas Ramokhoase to vacate his post four months after he took office in 2011.
Municipal manager Norman Selai was suspended, but he later quit. Chief financial officer Tladi Mokoena, who took over from Selai in an acting capacity, was himself suspended after approving hefty salary increases.
Municipal workers went on strike in November when the council ruled that the increases were illegal, and demanded that the beneficiaries reimburse the council.
Workers sitting idly in one of the neglected gardens at the municipal building did not want to speak and did not trust an outsider.
Papi Mafubedu, of the Thumahole Community Association, said the workers were worried because seven shop stewards were fighting for their jobs after they were charged with misconduct.
"The charge seems to be serious," said a worker, adding that the municipality's management did not have a record of talking in good faith.
To these workers, the strike was legitimate and in protest against service delivery problems affecting "everyone" in town.
Current acting municipal manager Thabo Mokoena, recently deployed by the provincial co-operative governance department, argued the strike was "totally illegal".
He said the municipality, the department and the SA Municipal Workers Union were in discussions to resolve the workers' problems.
Mafubedu, of the community association, said the only solution was "administration" - having the national government run core municipal functions.
"This is a big mess. The only way to resolve the situation is to take the political players out of the picture."
The Parys Development Association recently urged the Ngwathe municipality to get its act together, failing which it would take legal action against the management.
A reply from Ngwathe was demanded by Tuesday this week, but the deadline passed with no response. The forum is to meet to plan its next step.
The political opposition in Ngwathe said the handling of the labour strike was an example of the "lack of grit" in the ANC-led town council.
Democratic Alliance caucus leader Arnold Schoonwinkel said the town suffered due to contesting politicians unwilling to act against "lazy and inefficient" officials.
Nevertheless, the municipality had seen various senior heads leave in the past year.
ANC councillor Elias Sothoane said the municipality's current problems were due to a small group of "hooligans" pursuing individual interests.
Businesses have learned to adapt, at a price. Helping customers in her butchery, Jessica Jansen van Vuuren hoped "something" would happen to change the situation.
"We use a lot of water for washing floors, the scales and counters, which must be done regularly. Buying bottled water for the purpose brings huge additional costs."
The business recently suffered damages of about R70000 because of a power failure.
Guest houses and restaurants have installed additional water tanks and water filters. Businesses and community volunteers have since taken on some municipal duties themselves, such as removing rubbish from sidewalks.
In Thumahole, away from the buzz of business and politics, pensioner Mankoama made a simple request to a stranger visiting her house. Speaking in Afrikaans, she said: "You must help us to make everything right."