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Until fairly recently, the small town of Barberton in Mpumalanga was not a regular feature in the news. It is home to a population of just under 70 000, with an estimated unemployment rate of about 26%, mostly affecting young people. The community was thrust into the spotlight last month when they challenged the planned merger between their municipality, Umjindi, and the larger Mbombela municipality later this year.

For showing the will to exercise their democratic right and standing together as a community, the people of Umjindi are our heroes of the week.

The move, by the Municipal Demarcation Board (MDB), is seen in some circles – including local politics – as inconsistent with regulations governing processes like this. According to a Good Governance Africa article republished by Business Day, Umjindi residents have opposed the proposed merger from the moment they heard about it.

“In February last year, consultation meetings with its residents ‘ended abruptly’ because they would not let local government and the MDB members speak,” reads the article, quoting local newspaper Barberton Times.

Employees of Umjindi also went on strike in February, with the merger at the top of their grievance list. The new municipality merging Mbombela and Umjindi will consist of 45 wards — the number needed to qualify for metro status. The apparent politics behind this is at the heart of the problem.

“The management is quiet and not communicating with us when it comes to the merging of the two municipalities. The workers are unsure about what will happen about their current positions once the merger takes place,” said Vusi Mahlalela, South African Municipal Workers Union representative in Umjindi. He was quoted in a News24 report.

In April last year, the Sowetan reported that an MDB consultative meeting about the proposed merger was disrupted by a “disgruntled group”, the Umjindi Community Forum, which threatened to turn Barberton into “another Malamulele, Khutsong and Balfour” – towns that had seen violent service delivery protests – if their opposition to the merger was ignored. According to the newspaper, members of the group said the municipalities should be left independent because of Mbombela’s “administrative weaknesses and corruption”.