Editorial: Corrupt, negligent municipalities kill

When a government fails over and over again, people die. We report this week about three children who burned to death in a fire at their home outside Standerton in Mpumalanga. These are children who had a future. Children who could have changed the world. Who could have replaced our current self-interested, corrupt leaders.

Standerton is in the Lekwa local municipality, which has continued to fail to deliver basic services. In December, Parliament called its municipal manager, Gugulethu Mhlongo-Ntshangase, and her team to explain the allegations published in a Mail & Guardian investigation into Lekwa. The investigation included details of millions of rands spent on private security for municipal officials, the municipal manager’s brand new BMW and the fact that faecal matter continued flowing into the Vaal River from the municipality’s sewerage system, despite millions being spent to fix it.

Corruption is often talked about as benign — the movement of millions and billions of currency. But corruption and mismanagement destroy services and, ultimately, lives. Kathleho, Snehlanhla and Melokuhle, all under the age of 11, died in a fire because the municipal fire department didn’t have a truck to send out, and the emergency services arrived too late to do anything for the children. This meant that their father, mother and family had to listen to their screams as the fire took away their lives.

Yet the municipality knew for three months that it did have any fire engines. In those three months, they refused a quote to rent one fire engine for R100 000 and instead — a month after the death of the siblings — agreed to pay R500 000 for two trucks. One never arrived and the other one broke down before reaching Standerton. The company providing the trucks is not known in the fire engine industry. The municipality won’t say how it selected the company. It refuses to respond to questions about its role in the death of these children, and the destruction of more than a dozen homes in the Standerton area, which have burned down in the period when no fire engines were available.

Mhlongo-Ntshangase went as far as to forbid a staff member from speaking to an MP who conducted an oversight visit. In Parliament last December she refused to give meaningful answers about the mismanagement of Lekwa municipality.

Lerato Tsotetsi, the mother of the three children, told the Mail & Guardian that she has had no interaction with the municipality and has not received any counselling.

This kind of impunity has come to be something that we expect of municipal, and government, officials. But this week a court in the Eastern Cape set a precedent, ordering the dissolution of the Makana local municipal council. In the past, municipal leaders could only be removed through local government elections or at the discretion of the provincial government.

The court also ordered that the municipality be put under administration for “failing to promote a safe and healthy environment for its community”, but surmised that this intervention would not be effective without the removal of the “incompetent” council.

Judgment came thanks to action brought by the Unemployed People’s Movement, an activist organisation based in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape, which accused the Makana municipality of failing to adhere to the principle of good governance. The municipality, which was put under administration in 2015, was accused of habitual financial transgressions, severely constrained water supply and deteriorating infrastructure.

It did not contest the claims.

An election must now be held. Whether that happens remains to be seen — municipalities are in the habit of ignoring court orders — but this is a big moment in this country. Local government has long been the site of gross mismanagement and corruption. Both of these deny people their hopes and dreams and, as in Standerton, can lead to them also losing their lives.

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