/ 25 February 2016

The grim face of local government

Bucket toilets and human ­excrement running in the streets is not unusual in some of the ­country’s municipalities.
Bucket toilets and human ­excrement running in the streets is not unusual in some of the ­country’s municipalities.

Local government gets a healthy chunk of the budget, 9.1% (or R133-billion) of the total this year. Often the source of service delivery protests, some municipalities fail to provide such basics as water or electricity, and others still use the bucket system – and many are plagued by rampant corruption.

This is the face of government for much of South Africa. This is what local government looks like.

The uMkhanyakude municipality in northern KwaZulu-Natal was up in arms last year, protesting against water and housing shortages. This was not long after employees of Water Solutions Southern Africa shut down water works during an illegal strike, leaving thousands of people without water for weeks.

The striking workers also damaged part of the pipeline and water ­treatment facilities.

But this was only the tip of the iceberg, it emerged when provincial co-operative governance MEC Nomusa Dube-Ncube came before the National Council of Provinces to explain why the municipality was falling apart.

During that sitting two weeks ago, it was revealed that the municipality’s cash-flow situation was so dire that it was running on grants.

The uMkhanyakude council also owes creditors about R130-million, and there have been persistent unprotected labour strikes by ­municipal employees.

Sewage running down the streets is not an unknown phenomenon in the township of Meqheleng, near Ficksburg in the Free State.

The Setsoto municipality, within which it falls, was allocated funding to fix the sewerage system, but work started and then stopped, leaving only a few working toilets.

Two years ago, one of the residents was found digging trenches for the sewage that flowed from the blocked system into his yard, to get it to flow into the street. He was worried that his young children would play in the overflowing faeces from the toilet the municipality had built outside his house. Another woman had to live for at least two weeks with human waste in her yard.

While suffering the consequences of a sewerage system that wasn’t working properly, these families drew no benefit from it themselves as they were still using the much-hated bucket system.

Municipal manager Tshepiso Ramakarana said, in Setsoto alone, there are still 7 600 households using buckets for human waste.

“With the R165-million that was somewhat misused back then, we are hoping that the additional ­injection of funds will be an addition to some of the projects that are ­existing,” he said.

“We are convinced that the deadline of 2017 will be met,” said Ramakarana of the promise to eradicate the bucket system by next year.

Ditsobotla municipality, centred in the small North West town of Lichtenburg, is home to a host of problems, including an outstanding Eskom bill of R121-million, allegedly corrupt councillors and a string of municipal officials who are being investigated for various crimes.

Last year, eight councillors were alleged to have tried to elicit a bribe from a service provider whose job was to collect revenue from the residents.

The Ditsobotla municipality responded by suspending its chief financial officer. Since then, fresh allegations have arisen that the new head of finance is not qualified for the post and holds a certificate in winemaking instead.

The municipality also let its acting municipal manager go and replaced him with Monde Juta, who was seconded from the neighbouring Madibeng municipality in Brits.

Juta was first suspended in 2010 when he was investigated for criminal charges under the National Water Act. He was then reinstated but, in 2014, he was suspended again following a ministerial report that recommended disciplinary action and criminal charges against him for corruption and fraud.

However, Juta was reinstated yet again and now he heads the Ditsobotla municipality.

Juta denied that he was still under suspension or that his financial officer was not qualified and added that the officer had a postgraduate degree in taxation from an American law school. “He also is studying towards a BSc honours in financial management at the Wolverhampton management school of something in the UK,” he added.

New Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Des van Rooyen – who became South Africa’s finance minister for four brief days in December – is ultimately responsible for overseeing local governments – starting with his hometown on Gauteng’s West Rand.

The Merafong municipality, where Van Rooyen also, controversially, served as mayor long before he was plucked from obscurity and propelled to national attention, is battling with revenue collection.

The municipality has a deficit of R145-million, unaccounted-for water losses of more than 6.5-million kilolitres and electricity losses valued at more than R44-million.

The municipality has also failed to collect debt for municipal services to the tune of R756-million.

It owes about R83-million to service providers, with some amounts more than five months overdue, despite the directive that service providers should be paid within 30 days.

The Democratic Alliance’s caucus leader in Merafong, Blackie Zwart, said the poor revenue collection in the municipality was linked to the council’s failure to apply its credit control and debt policies stringently. Therefore, a culture of nonpayment has been perpetuated.

“There is no way this can carry on: poor decisions made, no follow-through with anything and we are losing money, yet have no way of making it up,” he said.

Zwart added: “The muni­cipality dismissed some workers for various reasons and the court judged that it was unfair. They had to pay out R8-million,” he said.

His concern is that, even though the smaller municipalities get 80% of their funding from national ­government grants, prices for bulk services have increased yet very few residents pay their accounts, leaving municipalities like his unable to run effectively.