Co-operative Governance Minister Richard Baloyi. File photo: Masi Losi

Cape Town - A proposal to merge two municipalities in the Free State has not been completely withdrawn, Co-operative Governance Minister Richard Baloyi said on Thursday.

He was explaining to reporters his decision to stop the proposed merger of the Metsimaholo and Ngwathe municipalities, in the Free State.

Baloyi said the process was suspended so it could be monitored by the demarcation task team, which was set up last year to ensure that changes to municipal boundaries were above board.

He said he was not usurping the powers of the Municipal Demarcation Board (MDB), which has the final say on municipal boundaries.

The task team would “baby-sit” the process “in [the] interests of stability in the country”.

Residents in the area embarked on violent protests on Sunday in opposition to the proposed merger.

Since then four people have died, several have been injured and hundreds arrested. Several cars have been set alight and government buildings damaged in Zamdela.

“I received information that the people of Zamdela (informal settlement) are protesting... and that there was a total collapse of order in the area, all on reasons associated with the differences on a matter that had to do with local government structures... I had to act,” said Baloyi.

He said he did have a mandate to stop the proposed merger to ensure that all concerns related to it were dealt with, “until we are satisfied that the manner in which it is done is so transparent that it leaves no space for people to find faults in the process, or reduce that to a minimum”.

Baloyi said part of the ministerial task team's job would be to ensure that all those affected by the proposed merger had a say in the matter.

On Thursday, residents of the area began returning to work.

“Everything is under control, although the situation is still tense,” said Colonel Motantsi Makhele.

Baloyi said part of the ministerial task team's job would be to ensure that all those affected by the proposed merger had a say in the matter.

“People and processes connected with government must be processes that are seen to be clean... People have a right to be consulted, [It's] not a privilege.”

The team would, among others, investigate “whether the system is not open to manipulation, where the changes may only suit certain individuals who may be more vocal or advantaged by changes”.

It would also look at whether changes to municipal boundaries would result in an improved state of a municipality and the services it provided.

The task team has until the end of February to complete its work.

“We are very sure that... we'll be able to assist the process,” said Baloyi.

He said he would meet with the MDB, the task team and service delivery facilitators on Thursday.

Baloyi defended Free State Premier Ace Magashule, who has been criticised for his silence on the issue and said no blame should be apportioned to his, as the merger was not proposed by the government, but by the MDB.

Congress of the People MP Dennis Bloem was less forgiving, and issued a statement calling on Magashule to show remorse and resign.

“Whilst the country was in turmoil and violent chaos due to the lootings vandalising and killings in the Free State, we find it quite disturbing that the premier of the province Ace Magashule remained not only silent, but absent as well, when Sasolburg turned into a war-zone,” said Bloem.