/ 14 April 2024

Taxpayers to cough up Govan Mbeki Municipality’s R200 million fine

Visible pollution such as plastic bags can be removed. The same is not true for antibiotics
GroundWork executive director Bobby Peek said the R200 million penalty “is probably one of the biggest fines to date of a municipality for water infringements”. File photo: Oupa Nkosi

Environmental experts have lauded as progressive the R200 million fine slapped on Govan Mbeki Municipality for pumping raw sewage into rivers, but say it is time to hold individual managers responsible rather than dig into taxpayers’ pockets to pay penalties to the state.

Activists and academics working in the water and environmental sector said this week that the fine marked a change in direction where the government is now baring its teeth to act decisively against water and sanitation contraventions as the water infrastructure of multiple municipalities crumbles. 

This comes as the Bethal magistrate’s court sentenced the municipality to the fine after it was found guilty of six counts of environmental violations including contravening the National Environmental Act (NEMA)107 of 1998 and the National Water Act 36 of 1998; failing to comply with a compliance notice; the unauthorised disposal of water and committing an act that detrimentally affects water resources.

Mpumalanga National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) spokesperson Monica Nyuswa said the municipality had committed an act which caused significant pollution to the environment between November 2019 and September 2020.

Nyuswa said “the disposal and distribution of effluent, raw and untreated sewer” had been released into the Emzinoni location, eMbalenhle wastewater treatment plant, Trichardt Spruit, Wela Mlambo, Leandra N17 Pump station, Waterval Hoek River, Blesbok Spruit and Groot Spruit.

She said the state and the municipality had entered into a plea and sentencing agreement.

In aggravation of sentencing, state advocate Beauty Cibangu told the court that the municipality had been convicted of serious offences which have had a detrimental effect on ecological systems and compromised citizens’ rights to wellbeing.  The municipality’s attorney argued in mitigation of sentencing that it had taken responsibility for its actions by pleading guilty, which was a sign of remorse.

“In sentencing the municipality all counts were taken together for purposes of sentence and the municipality was fined a sum of R200 million, of which R50 million is suspended for a period of five years on condition that the municipality is not convicted of contravention of Section 49A of the National Environmental Management Act 5 of 2002 and Section 151 of the National Water Act 36 of 1998,” Nyuswa said.

“The municipality was further ordered to repair all identified equipment as will be identified by the contractor on or before December 2026 and installation of weigh bridges to all landfill sites on or before 30 May 2025.”

University of the Free State professor of environmental management, Anthony Turton, said the stiff fine was “excellent news”. 

“Under the leadership of director general Sean Phillips and Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu they have decided to start cracking down heavily on delinquent municipalities,” Turton said.

“This is part of a national blitz where they are starting to show their teeth and regulate.” 

However, he said the “best example” of a failure of water infrastructure was Emfuleni Municipality which has been subject to multiple court cases for environmental violations that it had fought using taxpayers money, yet still the problems have not been fixed.

“The municipality and the labour law prevailed at all times and the officials worked from home on full pay for the entire duration of the cases against them… that makes me a little sceptical about the whole idea that the public must be happy the department is showing its teeth when in reality they are using taxpayers money to pay the fines,” Turton said.

He said the other “good news story” is the fact that national government is starting to single out individual municipal officials to charge them criminally for environmental offences committed.

“Dr Phillips is getting more aggressive on this matter, and they are seriously considering criminal charges against officials. Basically, I think we are moving in the right direction,” he said.

Turton added that eThekwini Municipality is the first metro in South Africa to have failed in delivering basic water and sanitation services to residents.

“We are seeing an acceleration in the failure of water services across the country, it is not just Govan Mbeki Municipality. The whole water infrastructure is at a different state of failure across different parts of the country but at eThekwini Municipality it has failed. eThekwini is the first metro to have failed,” he said.

“It is a failed metro in that it is unable to meet its core mandate to deliver basic services to the taxpaying public.”

However, he said a recent Durban high court ruling against eThekwini had stated that municipalities do not have a monopoly on the provision of services “which means when municipalities are not giving services then the citizens have the right to procure those services from other independent service providers”.

He said Ballito in Kwadukuza Municipality was an example of a town where residents had been procuring water services from an independent service provider for the past few years.

Head of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse’s (Outa) initiative WaterCAN, Ferrial Adam, said there had been similar fines levied against municipalities over the years, but these were “few and far between”.

“But I think we are going to see more of this and civil organisations like ourselves have laid criminal charges against the City of Joburg, and the Department of Water and Sanitation has laid charges against 14 municipalities for similar issues,” Adam said.

She said WaterCAn had also laid criminal charges against the City of Joburg’s former acting municipal manager Bryne Maduka, and municipal manager Floyd Brink over their alleged failure to address the sewage flowing into the Klip River.

“It is great they are fining municipalities but when they have to pay the fine it is taxpayers’ money and there is nothing to get the behaviour to change, so people must be held accountable,” Adam said.

She said the charges had also been opened by a partner NGO against eThekwini Municipality officials.

“In places like Hammanskraal where people died [of cholera], we should be looking at charges of culpable homicide,” she said.

GroundWork executive director Bobby Peek said the R200 million penalty “is probably one of the biggest fines to date of a municipality for water infringements”. 

“It is an important positive step that the government has moved to really fine a municipality. The question is: Will the municipality be able to pay that money, and does that mean that in paying the fine they will be cutting services to the poor because they must pay it?”

He said eThekwini was faced with a sewage problem because it had approved multiple housing estate developments in the North and Outer West of the city over the years without ensuring that there is sufficient infrastructure to cope with the additional demand for services.

He said Joburg was also in trouble in terms of its failing water infrastructure. “The Vaal triangle municipalities, which is a part of Joburg, is a complete nightmare,” he said.