Lekwa municipality won’t answer questions about why children died in fire

Three children are dead. More than a dozen homes have been gutted by fires in the past six months. And, as the Mail & Guardian reported last week, all this could have been averted had the Lekwa municipality in Mpumalanga followed due process in obtaining new fire trucks. 

Lekwa is one of the worst-performing municipalities in the country. It owes money to groups ranging from Eskom, to the water and sanitation department and even local mechanics in the main town of Standerton. At the same time, officials there are spending money on items including a BMW, private security and hundreds of thousands of rands in catering. 

The municipality also doesn’t respond to questions, or to those who seek to hold it to account. 

When MP Angel Khanyile attempted to conduct an oversight visit at the municipality — searching for answers to how three children died in a fire and why the municipality has no fire trucks even though R500 000 had been paid to service providers — she received no answers.

The Mail & Guardian also understands that the Mpumalanga department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs has failed to receive responses from the municipality. 

Those blocks to inquiry are backed up by physical deterrents — no one is allowed into the office of the municipal manager, Gugulethu Mhlongo-Ntshangase, without getting the okay from her burly bodyguards, who are perched outside the doors of her personal assistant’s office. A security gate then has to be opened by the assistant before you can get to Mhlongo-Ntshangase.

When the M&G sent questions — about the depleted fire fleet and how this places residents in jeopardy — to the municipal manager, she said she was busy and did not answer them. She also failed to answer subsequent questions about why she told Parliament that the national treasury had committed to assist the municipality to rent firetrucks, when the treasury told the M&G that it was not aware of this. 

The M&G confronted Madoda Besani, the executive manager of technical services at Lekwa, about this contradiction. He said he could not answer the questions. 

Parliamentarian Khanyile said that her check showed that the Lekwa fire department is crippled, with no protective clothing for the firefighters or trucks to fight fires. An M&G visit to the area confirmed this. 

Khanyile added: “We cannot sit idle and watch people’s properties get destroyed and have their lives endangered by fire while the Lekwa local municipality is doing nothing about it. This is in violation of the Fire Brigade Services Act, which clearly states that a municipality has a legal duty to provide fire-fighting services and equipment to its residents.”

An M&G investigation last week showed that a few days before Lerato Tsotetsi’s home burned down after a candle she had lit because the electricity was off again  — killing her three children — the municipality approached Marcé Projects in Centurion to rent one of its fire trucks. 

Its quote for renting a fire truck came to R100 089 a month.   

The municipality decided that it could not afford this. But a month after the children died, it agreed to a contract worth R500 000 a month for two fire trucks. One of them never arrived. The other broke down on its way to Standerton. This means that the community did not have fire trucks, despite the money being spent. 

An M&G investigation last year into the municipality found similar cases of high prices being paid for services, without the work being done properly. Contractors were paid almost R100-million to fix the municipal sewerage system, but raw sewage still ran into the Vaal River — the source of drinking water for much of Gauteng. Eskom bills also went unpaid, while water kept being cut off because money collected from homes and businesses had not been paid to the water and sanitation department. 

At the same time, the mayor bought a new BMW, hired private security and spent nearly R600 000 in catering.
The municipality has still not responded to questions sent by the M&G about the debt, mismanagement and spending. 

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Athandiwe Saba
Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession.

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