/ 15 March 2024

Durban is dying: Violent strike highlights ongoing decay

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A car passes under the bridge at the Connaught Bridge Interchange, in an industrial area near the polluted uMngeni River. What was once a small recycling plant has become a dumping ground. Photo: Des Erasmus

eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda’s demeanour during a media briefing this week about the crippling strike that has left the city’s residents living among filth — amid water and electricity outages — arguably did not convey the required urgency in righting the myriad wrongs in a crumbling metro of which he is the political head.

While Kaunda spoke, secondary roads in the metro remained littered with oozing rubbish bags that have attracted flies, bees and rats, the result of a prolonged, violent strike by the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) that has severely hamstrung waste management and cleaning services across the metro, and left one person dead.

Opposition parties, including the ANC’s shaky coalition partner the Economic Freedom Fighters, have called for Kaunda’s head, while long-suffering residents and businesses bear the brunt of consistent municipal failures exacerbated by the strike.

The Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry has again warned that the metro’s seeming inability to consistently render basic services is detrimental to businesses, which “are already suffering from dysfunctional infrastructure, the poor state of key tourism assets, and safety and security concerns”.

While reading from a prepared speech on Wednesday about the strike — which has rendered the city and suburbs a festering mess for almost three weeks — Kaunda assumed the expected gravitas, stating that the strike had “crippled service delivery” in the city and there was a “massive” backlog as a result. Leaders understood people’s “frustration”, he added.

But when the time came to answer questions from journalists about the failures under his leadership, Kaunda slouched in his chair and listened while ANC councillor Nkosenhle Madlala, chairperson of the city’s governance and international relations committee, answered on his behalf.

“It would be unfair of anyone to accuse the mayor of failing when the mayor is not the only one who is leading this city,” said Madlala. 

He said that when Kaunda assumed his position, the city was recovering from floods, after which the Covid-19 pandemic hit, followed by the July 2021 riots, which had severely harmed the city’s revenue base.

“It is [because of] the mayor’s leadership that we have a city to speak of in the first place.”

The mayor had inspired enough confidence among business owners to reinvest in eThekwini, he said. It was opposition parties that were trying to undermine Kaunda’s work to garner votes ahead of this year’s provincial and national elections.

Kaunda had earlier accused “opportunistic political organisations” of seeking to capitalise on the strike and “prolong it until 29 May” — the date for the elections. He said the “hopes” of those opportunists were resting on a protracted strike and that it was “going to pain them” that the city had ended the strike. 

So volatile had the collection of waste become since late February that the police and community groups had to escort contractors, late at night, to collect refuse or attend to electricity and other faults.

Residents, who had been told to keep their rubbish inside their properties to avoid the befoulment of suburbs, were not informed that the contractors were collecting in their areas or when, in order to ensure the safety of the contractors, who had been threatened, harassed and some assaulted, by striking workers. 

The additional cost of the contractors had not yet been tallied, said municipal manager Musa Mbhele, although they were already on the city’s books. 

The strike ended on Wednesday, according to the city, although only about 80% of workers had reported for duty by then. 

But by Wednesday afternoon, community crime watch groups were posting notices on WhatsApp, asking residents not to share photos of municipal staff at work, because they were again being threatened by those still striking. 

Samwu’s regional secretary in eThekwini, Xolani Dube, told the Mail & Guardian that the union had officially declared the strike over on Tuesday, although the municipality had “complicated” matters by suspending eight shop stewards and dismissing dozens of workers.

The city and union had agreed on a period of time to “put remedies in place” to discuss benchmarking at the metro, he said, but “while we are doing this, the employer is dismissing employees en masse, so we are pleading with the [municipality] to please stop the suspensions, dismissals and disciplinary hearings because this is a matter that can be resolved among ourselves”. 

Samwu wants the salaries of eThekwini workers realigned to match those of fellow metros Ekurhuleni and Tshwane, “where workers are earning up to R3 000 and R3  500 more”, said Dube.

According to the city’s figures for the strike, 81 employees are on precautionary suspension for misconduct, 1 891 have been given notices of misconduct, and 88 have been dismissed. 

Thirteen people were arrested for contravention of the court order granted to eThekwini, for malicious damage to property and damage to infrastructure. They appeared in court on Wednesday and were released on bail. 

The metro is still calculating the cost of damages incurred, according to Mbhele, who said the amount stood at R10 million “a couple of days ago but we suspect it is more than that”.

Residents and businesses are left grappling with filth. At the Connaught Bridge Interchange, in an industrial area near the severely polluted Umgeni River, what was once a small recycling plant has become a dumping ground.

Here, the waste stretches for several hundred metres, clogging up the road to well-kept businesses that, before the strike, mowed and cared for verges and grass areas themselves. Those manicured patches of lawn now heave under mountains of refuse bags, ripped open by waste pickers or burst and overflowing after being thrown from trucks. Small groups of men sit among the filth, drinking beer, charging people a small sum to help dump.

According to a report Mbhele submitted to council this week, equipment has been hired to “deal with” the dump at Connaught Bridge, although the M&G saw no trucks removing refuse, and only vehicles offloading rubbish.

The backlog in services is expected to take two weeks to clear, but residents, businesses, and potential investors will remember the consequences of the vandalism, infrastructure damage, assault and one murder that took place during the strike for much longer.

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Goats heads, boiled clean, were among some of the refuse dumped in the Berea area of Durban during the strike. Photo: Jonathan Erasmus

A female supervisor in the cemetery and crematorium unit in Umlazi was “accosted” while transporting grave diggers and “beaten up”, Mbhele said. She died of her injuries days later. Two employees in the electricity unit were shot and injured. Police are investigating a case of murder and two of attempted murder.

This is not the first violent strike by municipal employees. And if past actions are an indication of future ones, the threat of sporadic or no waste collection at all, compounded by frequent water and electricity outages outside of load-shedding, is never far off.

In 2019, under then mayor Zandile Gumede, workers blocked roads with municipal vehicles, used municipal tipper trucks to dump rubbish on the city’s streets, damaged private and public property and wrecked basic infrastructure. That illegal strike also resulted in water shortages and consequently allegations of “sabotage” being made by the municipality.

Gumede, who is accused number one in a corruption trial involving Durban Solid Waste, said at the time that the city and a team from the provincial government were looking into “the whole recruitment process” in the municipality. The strike was sparked by Gumede allegedly “favouring” ANC military veterans for positions in the metro in return for their political support, an accusation she denied.

In the report to the council, Mbhele also made mention of sabotage, saying the effect on water and electricity provision was as a direct result of sabotaged “water valves, electricity installations, damage to municipal property such as vehicles, roads, and general disturbance[s] to municipal services, such as clinics”.

The city would seek damages from Samwu, Mbhele said, although the amount was yet to be finalised.

As for rebates for uncollected refuse, “we are still going to decide on the way forward for that”, he said. 

It must be borne in mind, he said, that the charge for refuse did not only cover collection. There were other costs involved, such as landfill sites, maintenance of those sites and “security issues”.

“It is too early for now to just say there is going to be a 100% rebate.”

But, as “a caring city” the possibility would be entertained. Prior to this, he said it had to be factored in that the city had “allowed” residents “to use our landfill sites for free of charge to dispose of their waste”.

Kaunda, Mbhele and Madlala were dismissive of suggestions that yet another violent strike and the city’s inability to consistently deliver essential services had a detrimental effect on business confidence, and that the metro could be viewed as too volatile a place for investment.

This is despite the chamber’s business confidence index report, issued in January with the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s macroeconomic research unit, showing that in the fourth quarter of 2023 “the proportion of respondents that expressed lack of confidence in KwaZulu-Natal rose to 84.4% from 78.4% quarter-on-quarter and 70% year-on-year; and those that expressed confidence in the economy dropped from 10.8% quarter-on-quarter and 10% year-on-year to zero”.

“It is highly likely, therefore, that poor service delivery may be playing a significant role in driving down business confidence in Durban,” the chamber told the M&G. 

Umgeni River
Water activists have “renamed” some of eThekwini’s notoriously polluted rivers, such as the Umgeni, to reflect consistently high levels of E-Coli, a direct result of poor maintenance of water and sewage infrastructure. Photo: Des Erasmus

At a South African Human Rights Commission meeting last week at UKZN, former municipal manager Mike Sutcliffe said all indicators used to measure eThekwini’s financial health pointed towards the fact that there should have been an intervention by provincial or national government. 

Sutcliffe was part of a three-person support team appointed by the provincial government last year to stabilise eThekwini’s finances via a section 154 intervention. Also appointed were Cassius Lubisi and Thandeka Ellenson. But the team was rejected by ANC members in council. 

Said Sutcliffe at the meeting: “The city in terms of national [financial health] indicators set by national treasury shows that eThekwini ranges between two and three out of a possible four. Zero means that you have no financial triggers in terms of Section 13 of the Municipal Finance Management Act.

“If a municipality has one out of four on the scale, there should be an intervention, while scoring a four out of four means the municipality is in desperate circumstances. Now, as a metro sitting in a trigger range of two and three out of four, there are issues over the last four years that ordinarily would require financial intervention.”

He said the city had a “twin problem” of underspending, estimated to be as much as R33  billion, and an ever decreasing expenditure of repairs and maintenance well below the treasury’s guidelines. This was compounded by declining amounts being spent on water and waste infrastructure.

Sutcliffe also said the last auditor general report was significant because it singled out eThekwini in the national consolidated report. There were issues of fraud and corruption, and cases of money being paid to service providers without services rendered. 

“So many people tell me they cannot even get basic information out of the city, such as who the owners of water tankers are, and the cost breakdown of each load of water transported,” said Sutcliffe. 

“And getting that kind of information out is important as it helps officials make decisions as to where they are spending too much or too little.”

He said the auditor general report also highlighted the metro’s non-achievement of targets, with some remaining at zero completion.

The city received an unqualified audit with findings for the 2021-22 financial year, with its prospects as a going concern being flagged by the auditor general.

Additional reporting by Lyse Comins.