Volunteers fill municipal-sized hole

Lekwa municipality is the epitome of a broken municipality. Constantly in battles with Eskom and the national water and sanitation department to stop the power and water being disconnected, its outstanding debt is one of the highest in the country. In October, three children died when their home burned down with them inside. The fire department could not respond. Despite millions of rand being spent, it had no working trucks. 

These failures are the product of years of mismanagement — and outright corruption.

Last month, the mayor of the municipality, Linda Dhlamini, was removed through a vote of no confidence in which 16 councillors — eight from the ANC, four from the Democratic Alliance, three from local party Civic Voice and one from the Economic Freedom Fighters —  all voted for him and the chief whip, Mapaseka Molaba, to go.

One of the ANC councillors told the Mail & Guardian that this was the best decision for the people of Lekwa and the party. “Money is being looted here with no consequences. The mayor won’t do his job or simply attend vital caucus meetings,” the councillor said. “The municipality is completely paralysed with nothing working, to the point where community members have to take over the work of the municipality.”

That comment led the M&G to the Lekwa Clean Up Crew, an initiative by businesspeople from around the main town in the municipality, Standerton. Suzelle Kemp, who runs the administration of the organisation, said they started in 2016.

“Two of our founding members are exercise junkies and would run past each other every day. They started talking and realised that they both were tired of seeing their town falling apart,” said Kemp.

She and three other people joined the call to form “the crew”. They receive financial donations or cleaning materials from other businesses or community members. The crew fixes potholes in the little town with tar — if they can afford it — or with gravel if the donations are low.

They also cut grass in parks and communal areas, which would otherwise grow past knee height, thanks to the heavy rains of the last few months. They also cut the grass growing around municipal buildings and the town’s show grounds.

Kemp said: “There is a long list of things we do that the municipality is meant to do, like picking up rubbish, cleaning storm water drains, [filling]potholes and taking down the abortion notices [offering illegal terminations].” When the municipal rubbish tip starts overflowing, the crew asks businesses to lend their earth-moving machinery to push it back. “The municipality usually has an excuse that theirs is not working,” said Kemp, adding: “No one wants to live in filth and we will continue to try to make a positive impact.”

The crew currently employs five people and a supervisor to do the work. The likes of Kemp and other board members work on a voluntary basis, giving of their time and asking community members to do the same.

Community member Ashley Meyers said the first time he saw the crew he thought it was a joke. “There they were filling up a pothole in the middle of the road. The municipal vehicles were just driving past and not saying a thing. These guys do everything that the municipality is meant to do with no help from them. We ask ourselves what the use of the municipality is then.”

He added that the work of the crew was vital to the little the town of Standerton still had to offer. “If it wasn’t for them the town would be a rubbish dump. No one really cares about this place and those in the ruling party who do are removed.”

Meyers is referring to the fate of the ANC councillors who removed the mayor, Dhlamini, who are under pressure to change their decision.

Spick and span: Suzelle Kemp (above) runs the admin of the Lekwa Clean Up Crew, which was formed in 2016 when Standerton residents got tired of seeing their town falling apart. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

According to another ANC source in the council, the provincial party structures have instructed them to reinstate the mayor and the speaker or else they will be disciplined. This, the source said, has created a situation where there are few consequences — even when the town is falling apart.

“The mayor knows he is protected so he can do whatever he wants and get away with it,” Meyers said.

The ANC national executive committee’s spokesperson, Dakota Legoete, failed to answer questions on behalf of the party’s provincial and regional structures by the time of publication. He was contacted after the M&G tried without success to get hold of the provincial spokesperson and because our sources had said they had escalated the matter to the party’s national structures.

For the 100000 people living in the Lekwa municipality, this political shuffling means going without working services, such as reliable running water. The ANC source noted that the clean-up crew doesn’t help people “in the townships who don’t have the money to clean up their side of the town”. This is because their focus is the main town of Standerton. 

Businesses have had to find their own solutions — last year, JSE-listed poultry producer Astral Foods took the municipality to court over water–supply problems to its poultry processing plant in the area and built its own water-treatment plant. But not all businesses can afford to do this; others have simply closed.

Two years ago, the council voted to remove Dhlamini but he refused to leave office, saying the community did not want him to go. This situation is developing and it is unclear whether the provincial ANC will have its way and overturn the municipal vote. But, without a resolution in sight, it will fall to the likes of the Clean Up Crew to clean their town.

The missing firetrucks that led to children’s deaths

In October, three children under the age of 12 burned to death in a fire in Standerton in the Lekwa municipality in Mpumalanga. When the Mail & Guardian visited the family in January, they said that their lives could have been saved if the municipality had a firetruck. 

John Kock, the chief fire and disaster management officer at the municipality, said its only fire engine had been sent to Marcé Projects in Centurion to be fixed three weeks before the fateful fire.

“This matter is not starting here. I started this process way back in 2010, when I arrived here, to say that the fleet of the fire department is ageing. I think the other truck is older than all my grandchildren; it’s a 1982 model,” Kock said. “Every year, in and out, I submit reports [to the municipality] saying that this is the situation here. Nothing has been done about it.”

In documents seen by the M&G, the municipality requested a quote from Marcé to rent one of its fire trucks. The cost was R108890. This was too much money for the municipality. The M&G understands that the quotation was rejected five days before the fire that gutted the Tsotetsi home and killed their children.

Kock said that in the past six months there had been at least a dozen fires that his team could not respond to. “This is very frustrating. Most of my firefighters are staying in the township and can you imagine what their neighbours are saying to them?”

It was only after the death of the children that the municipality rented two trucks from a company called Merafe Holdings. According to an invoice submitted by Merafe, the company requested the municipality pay more than R500000.

Kock tells the M&G that one truck never arrived, despite payment being made. The second truck broke down just outside Heidelberg, more than 100km away.

“It was a scrap. I said it must be taken back. The information at hand was that that truck was last licensed in 2016. I am not sure if these guys were trying to make a quick buck or what,” said Kock.

Merafe’s lawyers, Dube Lesley Attorneys, confirm that the company leased two vehicles to the municipality and that one had mechanical issues.

“On two separate occasions, the fire engine suffered further mechanical failures, which prompted our clients to investigate the cause. Upon our client’s proper scrutiny, it became apparent that the mechanical faults were a result of negligence and/or human interference.”

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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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