Anatomy of a failed municipality

While we are still in the midst of the repeat shockwaves of Covid-19, one ailment for which it seems there is no vaccine is that state of local government. “the tier of government that is closest to the people”.  There are persistent indications that many local municipalities are unable to deliver basic services.  Audit results decline year after year without any consequence management, while the number of municipalities in distress, which are being propped up by various forms of provincial intervention, has been steadily increasing. 

Efforts by the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs to support and, where necessary, take over the executive functions of failing local municipalities have been met with mixed responses. Buckling under the sheer weight of the task, the department has released many from administration but with ongoing support. These municipalities are defined as “fragile”. But others are recidivists, incapable of self-correcting and unresponsive to audit outcomes. They are no longer failing, they have failed.

One such instance that is regularly in the headlines is the Msunduzi local municipality, which includes the capital of KwaZulu-Natal and seat of the legislature — Pietermaritzburg, The City of Choice. The host of multiple world sporting events including BMX, the Duzi Marathon, the Comrades, the Midmar Mile and the Team of Choice, Maritzburg United. A city of decay, filth, potholes, electricity outages that last for up to five days and water outages even longer. No money, no spare parts. A city whose iconic city hall, the largest red brick building in the southern hemisphere, displays a clock stuck at 11.45 because they have not paid the only horologist who can maintain it. 

Every month the city recovers less in rates and service charges than it spends. When it receives conditional grant funding for capital projects, it frequently fails to spend it because of an inability to establish contracts and oversee the work. The city is scrambling to raise funds for major electricity upgrades, while entering into a service level agreement with Eskom to maintain what is left of its ailing infrastructure. It simply cannot cope. The city is under administration for the second time in 10 years, this time for 27 months.

In March 2010 Msunduzi crashed spectacularly. The mayor, Zanele Hlatshwayo, accused the municipal manager, Rob Haswell, an ANC stalwart himself, of bringing the city to its knees financially with a rampant budget deficit. Hlatshwayo was recalled, the executive committee was reshuffled and Haswell resigned, within a week of each other. There was total financial and institutional collapse.

Johan Mettler was the head of the provincial intervention team appointed by the department just two months’ earlier to formulate a turnaround strategy for the municipality. According to local media, they were reportedly not making headway because “officials refused to cooperate with the team”. These events will come back repeatedly like a cancer that will not respond to treatment. 

The collapse of the city’s administration gave the provincial intervention team the space and mandate it needed, in the form of a section 139(1)(b) administration order, to implement a turnaround strategy without encumbrance. He ruled the administration with a fist of iron, for the good, and for that his judgment was unquestionable. 

There was a matter of restoring public confidence. Mettler agreed to present a progress report on the provincial intervention team’s turnaround strategy to a city-wide stakeholder gathering hosted by a local NGO, the Built Environment Support Group (BESG), in January 2011. Before the event took place he disappeared overnight to the quieter pastures of the Drakenstein local municipality. His deputy, Ben Dorfling, bravely addressed the meeting of more than 350 delegates with an analysis, revealing very few strengths and opportunities, but many institutional weaknesses and no less than 76 threats. 

Sibusiso Sithole arrived as administrator number two to finish the job and hand over the reins to a new municipal council, with the words, “Now don’t mess it up”.  For a while, the still-fragile entity showed signs of a miracle recovery. By 2014, incoming municipal manager Mxolisi Nkosi brought the city its first clean audit in years, and in 2015 he won the department’s award for the best performing municipal manager. 

But the cracks became visible. As the ANC leadership contest played out between the Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa camps, the political and administrative leadership fissured — with mayor Chris Ndlela and Nkosi backing the CR17 campaign, and deputy municipal manager Ray Ngcobo and deputy mayor Thobani Zuma, well, it’s obvious. On the night of the long knives, Ndlela was recalled  and Nkosi was suspended by his own two deputies. A raft of senior officials followed suit, including the manager in the city manager’s office, the head of technical services, the head of internal audit … 19 people in all. In August 2016, Ndlela released a report to the local media on his last 100 days in office under the headline, “Trust no one, fear all”.  A businessman with no political experience, Themba Njilo, was brought in as caretaker mayor while the feuding continued behind the scenes.

Over the ensuing years, the city did not so much collapse as come to a grinding halt. Things became so bad that in April 2018, grassroots ANC members from the Moses Mabhida region marched on the provincial legislature demanding that the ANC national executive committee dissolve the regional executive. The targets of their wrath – provincial secretary Super Zuma, regional secretary Mzi Zuma, regional chair Mthandeni Dlungwane and the department’s Nomusa Dube-Ncube. 

The core of the rot was the Msunduzi municipality. It was forewarned when the auditor general presented an adverse audit opinion to full council on 28 February 2019, after an audit disclaimer the prior year, and told councillors that the city was “on the brink of collapse”. 

The multiple collapse in service delivery could not stop the inevitable. In April 2019, Msunduzi was placed under section 139(1)(b) administration for the second time.  MEC Dube-Ncube set out the reasons to a full council meeting: the collapse of service delivery, looming bankruptcy, the filthy state of the city and failure to implement a government clean-up project, councillors collapsing council meetings by non-attendance, failure to act against managers engaged in irregular expenditure, and drastic underspending of conditional grants intended for development and upgrading of the city’s aging infrastructure.  

Sibusiso Sithole, who completed the first period of provincial administration, returned to his old job.  Mayor Njilo was replaced by Mzi Thebolla in August 2019. The post of municipal manager, which had been vacant since the controversial Sizwe Hadebe was suspended in July 2018, was filled by Kadoda Mathide in April 2020 — just as the hard Covid-19 lockdown struck. 

The “new team” began to disintegrate before its work showed any results. Two months into his tenure as administrator Sithole was quoted in local media as saying, “Msunduzi is worse than before — the politics are worse”.  He complained that Msunduzi had been “captured”, that councillors were intimately linked to companies that had been looting the city’s coffers, and that he had received death threats. Following in the path of his 2011 predecessor, Johan Mettler, Sithole disappeared on 19 February 2020 to the Ugu district municipality, and was replaced by the department’s Scelo Duma.

When the rot is so deep, and surgery has failed, one cannot hide a botched job with a dressing for too long before the stench becomes overpowering. Duma’s tenure has been characteristic of a faceless civil servant. We all know they are there but who are they, and what are they doing?  

In October and December 2020 large parts of the city had power outages for up to five days at a time, as a result of ageing sub-stations going up in flames — aided and abetted by inexperienced staff who are often forced to use the wrong parts because of stock shortages. In June this year the high court in Pietermaritzburg found the Msunduzi municipality guilty on multiple counts of contravention of section 24 of the Constitution for chronic mismanagement of the landfill site. It has repeatedly belched plumes of toxic black smoke across the city, in one instance in January 2019 for four days.

Duma appears to have given up some time ago. In December 2020, he published his progress report, “Dust unsettled”, which cited the reason for service delivery failure to be a culture of entitlement and impunity; political interference; the use of state resources for personal gain and maladministration, fraud and corruption. He concluded, “Msunduzi faces a unique conundrum where the problem is known, the answer is known, yet it seems the problem cannot get solved.”  

It was confirmed again just last week in an internal audit report that identified R64-million of losses through fraud over a period of 30 months. It is not so much the amount of loss that has been proven to date that is significant as the fact that the underlying events prove an ongoing “culture of entitlement and impunity”.  

The patience of business is exhausted. Dialogue has failed. Residents are at boiling point over the collapse of service delivery, a dysfunctional call centre, the widespread theft of water and electricity, and a Stalinist regime of hard electricity disconnections and legal action against defaulters. Therein lie more problems: only 35% of customers are targeted for payment. Billing disputes run into the thousands as a result of faulty SAP accounting software that cost more than R250-million, and which Duma in October 2020 described as “the Achilles’ heel of Msunduzi”.  

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Just as the looting in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng spurred residents to defend their shopping malls, residents and ratepayers are fed up with the looting of their money by greedy politicians and their cohorts. The “gatvol” factor is causing citizens to rise into action. Ratepayers in Wembley have sent the municipality a letter of demand for the costs of road maintenance (pothole repairs) they have incurred. Residents in Imbali Unit 13 are seeking legal redress for the flooding of their houses caused by poor road design and maintenance.

This upsurge of citizen action has given form to a city-wide platform, the Msunduzi Association of Residents’, Ratepayers’ and Civic Associations (MARRC), with affiliates from the suburbs to the old R293 townships. People are so disenchanted with the conventional body politic that there is even talk of independent civic and ratepayers’ candidates standing in the local government elections, now likely to be deferred until February 2022. 

For now, the MARRC has petitioned the MEC for the department to place the Msunduzi municipality under section 139(1)(c) administration — in other words, dissolve the council. That will remove the political protection that has been afforded to corrupt councillors and officials through the entrenched network of patronage that has characterised and bedeviled the ANC in government. Then one can start weeding out the other root causes of systemic collapse. Focus on raising income that is due, without which it is impossible to deliver services. And take the hard line adopted by the former administrator, Mettler, when he first arrived in Msunduzi: “Sorry, I am too busy arresting people to talk to the media.” 

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Cameron Brisbane
Cameron Brisbane is executive director of the Built Environment Support Group. He writes in a personal capacity.

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