A 9mm pistol stuck out of the waistband of Mandla Mkhize’s overall pants as he loaded his tools into the back of a Ugu district municipality bakkie parked outside the Murchison reservoir after lunchtime last Friday.
“This is how we work here,” said Mkhize (not his real name), patting the butt of the weapon that he has carried to work every day for the past year. “We duck and dive like crooks to do our jobs. If we don’t, we’ll get killed.”
Mkhize wiped raindrops from his glasses and paused while his partner started the van, which was accompanied by a car and three armed guards from a local security company, in preparation for their next stop.
The two water technicians have their hands full.
Ugu has been battling with a water crisis for the past year because of ageing infrastructure, damage caused by severe floods in the area and a wave of sabotage because of labour unrest linked to the ongoing infighting in the governing party’s Lower South Coast region.
As a result, much of the district, home to about 750000 people living along the coast and as far inland as Kokstad, has been without water for the past month, with some areas being without water since last year.
“If they see us fixing the pipes, they call the inkabis [hitmen] to come and attack us,” said Mkhize. “It’s bad here. Somebody is going to die.”
“They” are allegedly members of the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu), dismissed by the municipality for allegedly going on strike illegally and damaging infrastructure. In the most recent incident, 131 workers were fired by Ugu, leaving a massive hole in its workforce, which was already stretched by the demands of keeping ageing infrastructure working.
According to Mkhize, and several of his colleagues, the attacks are linked to infighting in the ANC, with Samwu aligning itself with a faction backing former president Jacob Zuma.
The grouping is, according to them, “at war” with supporters of President Cyril Ramaphosa, led by current mayor Sizwe Ngcobo, and wants to take control of the ANC region when it eventually holds its elective conference next month.
“People were fired over what they did wrong, but they’ll come back because this thing is political. Me, I’m just doing my job for as long as I can,” Mkhize said.
Last month KwaZulu-Natal co-operative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) MEC Sipho Hlomuka redeployed Pietermaritzburg administrator S’bu Sithole to become acting municipal manager at Ugu in a bid to stabilise the situation.
Municipal manager, DD Naidoo, had been the target of the protests and had been placed on special leave till the end of March after spending several months on sick leave.
When the Mail & Guardian visited the district last week, much of the area inland of Port Shepstone was without water, as was Port Edward, on the district’s southernmost border and the area inland towards Harding and Kokstad.
At Murchison, the reservoir supplying the local hospital was being filled manually by 18000-litre water tankers hired by Ugu from several local contractors, as the pumps are broken.
Last week, residents near Murchison, blocked roads and stoned traffic in a demand for water.
Neither Murchison nor Bhobhoyi, where residents also protested last week, had water on Friday.
At Port Edward, guesthouse owner Malcolm Ellis said they had been without water on and off since November.
Last Wednesday residents of several towns in the district marched on the Ugu offices in Port Shepstone demanding that it meet its water supply mandate. They have also submitted complaints to Cogta, the SA Human Rights Commission and the public protector, to no avail.
At a media briefing last week, mayor Ngcobo said that the sabotageof reservoirs and pump stations was an act of “criminality” carried out by community members and was not politically related.
“We don’t have proof that it is employees. It is a criminal act that is done … by members of the community within the district,” he said.
Ngcobo said the council had followed proper procedures when dismissing the employees.
“There will be political issues, but here in this institution we are united. There are no councillors who are for president Zuma or president Ramaphosa. We don’t have that here. We are councillors of Ugu and we take decisions as councillors,” he said.
“There is no influence on the decision. There is nothing that came from the ANC,’’ Ngcobo said.
Democratic Alliance councillor Dave Watson, who lives in Port Edward, said the district had undergone a “complete meltdown”.
“There is a profound lack of water security. The situation is a lot worse than last year. The situation is bad here in the coastal wards, but it is much worse inland, in the rural wards, where people have less capacity to get water for themselves,” Watson said.
Watson described the problem as “complex,” saying the collapse of infrastructure, mismanagement of finances and the fight in the ANC were all contributing to the collapse of the municipality.
“We have been a battleground for the past six years in the infighting in the majority party. The situation has been intense, and the industrial sabotage has fundamentally altered the ability to deliver water,” Watson said.
Watson said the failure of Ugu had serious implications for the planned district model of service delivery punted by Ramaphosa in his state of the nation address last month.
“If you have broken district municipalities, how can the district delivery model work? It can’t. You need the vehicle to deliver and the vehicle is broken,” Watson said.
Ugu is not the only KwaZulu-Natal district that is in trouble. Key municipalities within the Amajuba and uThukela districts are currently teetering, whereas eThekwini’s leadership had to be replaced over their inability to run the city properly. Msunduzi, the major municipality in the uMgungundlovu district, is currently under administration, and ANC infighting has also impeded the functioning of uMgungundlovu itself.
On Tuesday the water pump station at Freeland Park at Umzinto in the north of the district was sabotaged.
Samwu provincial secretary Jaycee Ncanana did not answer calls from the M&G by the time of publication and Ugu spokesperson France Zama similarly did not respond to emailed questions and calls.
Cogta spokesperson Senzo Mzila said Sithole’s appointment would stabilise the municipality, which would also be supported by a Cogta task team being established to deal with service delivery challenges.
The department had secured R14-million to improve electricity supply to the Umtamvuna water plant and a further R2.7-million for an earth berm across the Umzimkulu River to stablise water supply.
“The notion that the Ugu District has collapsed is false. The district faces a number of challenges which are the norm within the sphere of local government,” Mzila said.
He said the government’s interventions would ensure service delivery.
“We believe that the rollout of the district development model will greatly assist to realign and co-ordinate the development within the municipalities,” Mzila said.
A model to build capacity where it is ‘most broken’
In his State of the Nation address last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa said his administration had identified the district development model to ensure “effective implementation” of policy and service provision.
Ramaphosa said the model was a form of social compact involving key players at district level to unlock development and economic opportunities and “builds the capability of the state where it has been most broken”.
He said provincial and national government would increase support to strengthen the capacity of municipalities, 40 of which had already been placed under Section 139 administration around the country.
Services from various provincial and national departments would also be coordinated at the district level to fill gaps in service provision, with additional skills and oversight being provided to both the district municipality and the local municipalities, which fell under it.
Pilot projects had begun in three districts — OR Tambo in the Eastern Cape, eThekwini and KwaZulu-Natal and Waterberg in — while the model would be expanded to 23 new districts.
Existing interventions included refurbishment of water infrastructure, clearing of illegal dumping sites and provision of roads and sewerage infrastructure.
But, without political leadership and with continued infighting in municipalities, these interventions are for nought.