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Things fall apart in Free State gold fields

The city of Welkom and its neighbouring gold-mining towns last week and found evidence of a dying local economy‚ with a municipality trying hard to keep the facade from crumbling.

In Welkom central‚ it is not easy to spot the telltale signs of a city in decline‚ but on the outskirts abandoned buildings and stripped-out shops tell a different story. Smaller towns like Virginia and Odendaalsrus once flourished but are now being abandoned in a slow migration to greener pastures. In the township of Thabong‚ sewage runs down several roads. Crime has picked up because every single street lamp along its main road has been cut down and sold for scrap‚ leaving residents in darkness.

Thabong forms part of the Matjhabeng municipality‚ which has gained a reputation for being one of the worst-run municipalities in the country. Conservative estimates put the number of miners operating unlawfully in the abandoned shafts in and around Matjhabeng at several thousand. Near Virginia on the outskirts of Welkom‚ eight out of nine gold mines shut down in the late 1990s and early 2000s. An estimated 100‚000 jobs were lost in the mining sector and support industries based in Welkom. Schalk van der Merwe of the Goldfields chamber of commerce and provincial chairman of the Small Business Institute commented that the entire gold fields area was rapidly deteriorating‚ and was an example of what other parts of the country could look like in five to 10 years.