Local officials destroy the fields of dreams with callous disregard
When people start protesting, barricading the streets and burning public buildings and councillors’ homes, it is usually the final, frustrated action of those who have been trying to approach their local government to make it accountable. They are trying to exercise a basic right — to participate in democracy and, more specifically, to have their rightful say in how public funds are spent on their behalf. This is a tale of two sports grounds, by Niren Tolsi, of how people’s attempts to take control of something at the heart of their communities have been repeatedly thwarted
In full sight and in broad daylight, the heavy construction vehicles arrived. They came to cover up a tender gone horribly wrong — to erase its faults and imperfections, according to the residents of Glenmore, near Peddie, in the Eastern Cape.
They robbed this rural community of the only recreational facility they had — their sports field.
“I think it was a cover-up,” says Buyisele Magobiyane (39) about the sudden appearance of yellow bulldozers and other vehicles in their village late last year. “They removed all the grass that had been planted there and flattened out the running track. We were not told anything. No plans, nothing.”
The “cover-up” is part of a two-and-a-half year struggle the residents have waged with the Ngqushwa local municipality over the venue. The grounds are at the edge of the Great Fish River Nature Reserve. The vista from where the residents once played football and netball or boxed is breathtaking.
They had built a fence around the field to keep out wandering livestock and had tended the grounds themselves. It had helped to knit together an isolated community with very little to do other than to go to church or visit the three shebeens in the village.
It is a R35 one-way trip to the nearest large town, Grahamstown, and R25 to Peddie. There are no jobs in Glenmore; the youth are condemned to unemployment unless they move away. The sports field had become the village’s heart, pumping with social activity, promoting a healthy lifestyle and building up a sense of community.
“We had three netball teams, which played here regularly,” says Gcobisa Xolisi, a 17-year-old grade 11 pupil at the local high school and an avid netball player. “We were training three times a week and playing competitive matches on weekends but, when the building started, all that stopped.”
During the 2015-2016 financial year, the municipality proposed a R2.4-million “upgrade” of the venue. During the municipality’s integrated development plan consultation process, residents had expressed a need for houses and flushing toilets.
But they had been convinced by municipal officials to accept the upgrade, otherwise they “would not feature in the budget”, people said.
The venue was shut for four months in 2016 while the municipality’s preferred contractor, Mgunculu Trading, built change-rooms and seating areas, landscaped the ground around the sports field, planted new grass on the field and installed new multipurpose goalposts for football and rugby and built cement courts for netball and basketball.
But the end result was a disaster. The posts were of such poor quality that they have been blown over several times. In December last year, they were broken, hanging like snapped metal skeletons. The grass did not take and the fields have degenerated into uneven “clay pits”, the courts are of poor quality, the changing rooms unusable and the “landscaping” appears to be hyperbole for shrubs and weeds.
The field has caused divisions in the community — a generational rift over how to pursue a rectification process, which the municipality has opened. The elders have counselled a subtle approach, but the youngsters favour more radical action to be taken against the Ngqushwa local municipality. There is also infighting between the different sporting codes on what to do about the situation.
The effects on a community that had, until the municipality’s intervention, been doing it for themselves is profound.
Siphokazi Nela (25), who is unemployed, says: “Yoh! Robbery, rape … these have all been on the increase in the community since we have stopped playing sport. One of our [netball] players was raped [last] year because the boys have nothing to do anymore. People are drinking more and house break-ins have also increased.”
Gcobisa says the netball teams have to walk far — sometimes for up to two hours — to neighbouring villages that have sports facilities. Along the way they are harassed by men, and the teams often lose matches because their energy has been sapped by the long walks.
[Local resident Siphokazi Nela, in one of the abandoned changing rooms, says rape has been on the increase since the grounds became unusable. (Madelene Cronjé)]
When the municipality arrived on its demolition mission in December 2017, the residents halted it. They bemoaned the absence of consultation and demanded that the municipality had to consult them to ensure their needs were fulfilled. Residents also requested information about the budget allocated to fix the grounds.
The local councillor and municipal manager were unable to provide this but promised to find out and report back to them. Four months later the people of Glenmore are still waiting for the information.
Emboldened by a programme run by Afesis-Corplan, a nongovernmental organisation working to entrench participatory democracy in the Eastern Cape, the Glenmore residents have been using public documents such as municipal budgets and integrated development plans to hold local government accountable. They are adamant they will not let up until the municipality acts in a manner that recognises their right to participate in the functioning of their lives.
On April 25 this year the Glenmore community marched to the municipal offices to hand over a petition demanding information about the grounds. The march followed futile attempts to have the provincial department of co-operative governance and municipal officers present at a recent community indaba. Mayor Mnikelo Siwisa had barred officials, including the ward councillor, from attending the indaba and was not present when the petition was handed over.
The march was peaceful but the gates to the municipal office were locked. Police and private security guards guarded the entrance.
Afesis-Corplan’s Lindokuhle Vellem points to recent violent protests in the country and to the quick response of municipal officials to the fires and looting. “Is that what we need to do to get our point across? To have our voices heard? The mayor says he won’t come when communities call him, that he is the one who calls communities for meetings. But this is not how the law and the Constitution understands participatory democracy.”
Political analyst and academic Steven Friedman says the state often fails to “treat citizens as citizens”, especially when they exercise their right to participate in decisions affecting them between elections. “We lead the world in setting up participatory forums for citizens but we substantially trail the world in citizens actually participating in decisions that affect them.”
He says consultation is usually a “phoney exercise” because the state is averse to “citizens asking tough questions”, adding the mind-set “prevalent” among municipalities is that “citizens can participate as long as it is on government’s terms and not on the community’s terms”.
Co-operative Governance Minister Zweli Mkhize admits “a lot needs to be done to improve stakeholder interactions with government officials” at municipal level. He says disaffected people ignored by local government officials should approach their MPs to “escalate” their issues to the national level.
“If these issues are raised, through MPs, with ministers in Parliament we will make every effort to resolve them. I certainly will ensure that my department responds,” Mkhize says.
The rumble of heavy machinery intent on destruction and erasure has a loud echo for the Glenmore community, which was forcibly dumped here in 1979.
Their elders remember South African Defence Force soldiers knocking down their front doors, tying up and blindfolding people and then throwing them into the backs of trucks. They were later dumped in Glenmore, as the boundaries between South Africa and its Bantustans, such as the Ciskei, were enforced.
“Those were dark, terrible days,” Willie Botlani (60) says, recalling a time when the apartheid government acted with impunity in the middle of the night. But the current government is acting with the same impunity, and even in daylight — a government people had hoped would be more responsive and sympathetic.
The Glenmore project makes the consequences of state and ANC dysfunction blatant.
Mgunculu Trading lists Onke Mgunculu as its sole director — he is the ANC Amathole regional treasurer and part of a faction that supports former ANC president Jacob Zuma.
Mgunculu is also close to the Amathole regional secretary, Thembalethu Ntutu, who was recently forced by the courts to pay R313 000 back to the Mnquma local municipality after being charged with fraud and corruption relating to a R10-million refuse bag tender.
Mgunculu says he completed the project according to the specifications and blames the municipality for not watering the grass and maintaining the facility, which is why it became derelict and was vandalised.
But Glenmore residents dismiss this explanation. They say the ground was never usable, right from the time when the “refurbishment” had been “completed”.
An independent assessor hired by Afesis-Corplan found the work done may have cost approximately R1.6-million. The tender was for an original R2.4-million plus a budget increase of R470 000 for “additional work”.
Mgunculu denies that inferior material was used and insists “the project was of very good quality”. The municipality has instituted a forensic investigation into the project and Mgunculu said he had indicated his willingness to work with the investigative team.
Despite the Glenmore community’s sustained two-year-long campaign to get answers, the municipality appears to be indifferent to their concerns and was continuing to be billed by contractors on the project as late as August last year.
The municipality refused to answer specific questions sent by the Mail & Guardian, including why it had refused to engage substantively with the community on the refurbishment and subsequent rectification process, and allegations by Mgunculu Trading that the fault lay with the municipality for not maintaining the grounds.
Municipal spokesperson Ncumisa Cakwe said the municipality would respond once its investigation was complete.
Vivian Reddy is building a shopping mall on my childhood.
The businessperson, ANC funder and friend of former president Jacob Zuma has ripped up the sports complex in KwaDukuza (Stanger), a small sugar and paper-milling town 75km north of Durban and is replacing it with the concrete and bricks of another anodyne consumerist cathedral.
During apartheid, the Stanger Country Club grounds, which included a cricket oval, a nine-hole golf course, netball and tennis courts and a swimming pool, were for white people only, although they were surrounded by Indian and black townships and schools.
Owned by Tongaat Hulett, it was handed over to the oppressed for use in the early 1980s when the sugarcane growing and processing company built new whites-only facilities in nearby Gledhow.
Provincial caps and national champions in codes such as athletics, tennis, football and cricket would emerge from these grounds. Young children — black, Indian and coloured — honed their skills in the chaotic puzzle of daily football and cricket games, triumphing over the apartheid state’s intentions to limit joy and aspiration.
The Stanger Recreation Ground next door, also eviscerated by the ongoing mall construction, was to become one of the first sports grounds in the country to embrace nonracism — in 1960. The Lower Tugela District Indian Football Association expunged the “Indian” racial tag from its constitution and five black African teams joined the league in June that year — one of the first amateur leagues to do so.
[A shopping mall is being built where the historic Stanger sports complex once served local residents. (Madelene Cronjé)]
Years later, my father would take me to the Recreation Ground to watch Crusaders United play teams such as Lightbody’s Santos and Berea FC in the old Federation Professional League. Clinton Larsen bossed the Crusaders midfield. I learnt swear words in Tamil, Hindi and isiZulu, and the everlasting pessimism of being a football fan.
After the unbanning of political parties in the 1990s and sports unification, Crusaders were admitted into the National Soccer League. The creaky Recreation Ground was too small to host glamour clubs such as Orlando Pirates with their massed support, but Mamelodi Sundowns visited in March 1992. It felt as if half the town had squeezed in to watch stars such as Zane Moosa bamboozle Crusaders players — the other half were watching it at home, excited because KwaDukuza was actually on the television. Sundowns won 1-0 despite a doughty performance by Crusaders, who were relegated later that season.
The sounds of my “bras” pretending to be Pirates goal ace Albert “Bashin” Mahlangu, tennis player Stefan Edberg or the West Indian batsman Brian Lara are mere spectral whispers now — the thrill of sporting accomplishment replaced by the industrial roar of drilling, hammering and excavation.
The town already has a shopping mall. Why another had to be built on sports facilities that were accessible to several neighbourhoods, including the nearby Shakaville township, and the five schools within 500m of the site, is a question that has nagged at people such as Haroon Mahomedy.
He is a local businessperson and former sports administrator. His father, EC Mahomedy, was president of the Lower Tugela District Football Association when it embraced nonracism at a time when sport was increasingly being used as a weapon against apartheid.
“The grounds are of great historical significance,” says Mahomedy, “but it was also one of the few public spaces easily accessible to a large section of Stanger residents for sports. There are several vacant plots for a mall development but, by building it on the sports grounds, the municipality is really ripping the soul out of this community.”
Mahomedy is also chairperson of the Concerned Citizens Group (CCG), which has challenged the R9-million sale of 27 hectares of public land to Reddy’s Double Ring Trading 7, for the development. The group enlisted independent real estate consultants Knight Frank to evaluate the land. They found the price paid was “significantly under market” value, estimating its value closer to R60-million.
According to the minutes of council meetings and tender documents, the initial development was to include a civic centre and municipal offices. These the municipality planned to “rent to own” back from Reddy. The municipal buildings appear to be no longer included in the project.
Last year, the CCG took the KwaDukuza municipality and Double Ring Trading 7 to the high court in an urgent attempt to stop the development until they had received more information from the municipality regarding the sale of the land.
KwaZulu-Natal high court judge Mahendra Chetty dismissed the matter on a technicality — the CCG’s founding facts differed from those their counsel presented in court — but said he was in “general agreement with the sentiment expressed by the applicants that citizens cannot be expected to sit back and allow organs of state or local government to flout the law, particularly in respect of the disposition of public land”.
The CCG’s review application has not started because the municipality has ignored requests for information.
The minutes of the special council meeting held in 2015 — when the major decisions on the development were made — also noted that the developer “has committed to bear the cost of constructing new and better facilities for all the affected sporting codes”.
Shipping containers now sit on the remains of the swimming pool and the tennis and netball courts. No new courts have been built by Double Ring Trading 7. The company has not built a new cricket oval. Instead, it is refurbishing the Gledhow Cricket Oval on the other side of the town. Likewise there are plans to upgrade the existing swimming pool and sports fields of the formerly all-white Stanger High School — also across town.
These facilities may not be accessible to KwaDukuza’s residents either, because the school’s governing body chairperson, Simon Nyawo, has written to the municipality stating that parents are “sceptical of the disturbances” to the “day-to-day running of the school” caused by residents using the facilities. The school’s governing body has requested “opt-out clauses” in any agreement with the municipality about the use of the grounds.
Reddy has also brought a R28-million lawsuit (R10-million for defamation and R18-million for an escalation of costs in delaying the project) against the CCG, a group of mostly retired teachers, former sports administrators and a few business people.
In responding to questions, Brian Mpona, Reddy’s chief of staff, provided evidence of existing sports facilities which had been, or were in the process of being, upgraded.
No evidence of the “new” sports facilities Reddy had pledged to build (noted in a 2015 council meeting) was provided.
At the time of going to press Mpona had not responded to follow-up questions regarding whether Reddy still intended to build new facilities — and where these would be located.
Mpona confirmed they were “in dialogue with the CCG on various issues including the litigation”. Last month, mayor Ricardo Mthembu called an urgent meeting between the CCG and Reddy’s Double Ring Trading 7 to “resolve” the matter.
According to the CCG, it has been trying to nail down a meeting with Mthembu for more than two years.
Academic and political analyst Steven Friedman said the municipality’s predilection for opaqueness was symptomatic of local governments around the country.
“The sad reality is citizens will mainly have recourse if they are in contact with public interest law organisations, the media and nongovernmental organisations. This is a problem,” he said.
Meanwhile, labourers are working on public holidays and weekends to complete the mall by the end of August — paving paradise, as Joni Mitchell observed, “to put up a parking lot”.
KwaDukuza mayor plays dumb
In 2016, KwaDukuza’s Concerned Citizen’s Group (CCG) made a Promotion of Access to Information Act application for documents pertaining to the KwaDukuza local municipality’s sale of the Stanger Country Club grounds to Vivian Reddy’s Double Ring Trading 7. This was ignored by the municipality.
In January last year, the CCG launched an unsuccessful urgent interdict against the mall development and requested more information from the municipality. CCG chairperson Haroon Mahomedy said the municipality provided the organisation with “a hundred pages of irrelevant information and nothing that we requested”.
In September last year, the CCG launched their review application and again requested information about the sale. The municipality did not provide the organisation with documents within the required 15 days and, “despite subsequent letters to their attorneys this has not happened”, said Mahomedy.
Last month, the municipality was issued with a subpoena for the information, which was then withdrawn, and the group is “currently in the process of issuing a fresh notice to compel them to furnish the information”, he said.
The municipality’s refusal to hand over the documents has stalled the CCG case while the mall construction continues.
Mayor Ricardo Mthembu said people “need to follow the process” when requesting information from the municipality. When the Mail & Guardian suggested that the CCG said the correct process had been followed — and ignored — by the municipality, he maintained that “processes” needed to be followed. He did not elaborate on what “processes” had not been followed and said the question was “too administrative for me. I am a politician.”
Mthembu said he was unaware of a subpoena served on the municipality’s manager, accounting officer and chief legal officer on March 20 requesting information that included the review record of Double Ring Trading 7’s tender application, minutes from the bid specification committee meetings, and approvals and communications by the accounting officer relating to the sale of land.
He said there was nothing untoward about the sale of the land and that the project was “creating jobs”.
Niren Tolsi is a former resident of KwaDukuza. Members of the Concerned Citizens Group include his former teachers. The Glenmore article was supported by the “Accounting for Basic Services” journalism fellowship, a project of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Built Environment Support Group, Planact and the Isandla Institute with support from the European Union