This week the North West High Court ordered the Dr Ruth Segomotsi Mompati District (DRSMD) Municipal Council, its speaker and mayor to foot the court bill for unlawfully suspending the municipal manager, Jerry Mononela, after claiming he was guilty of financial misconduct.
“What’s interesting about this case is that the high court judge awarded punitive costs against the mayor, the municipal speaker and the municipal council,” says Mandla Mpempe of the Centre for Good Governance and Social Justice, a non-profit aimed at restoring accountability at local government level.
“This is not the first time that public officials have been held accountable for wasting public funds by bringing frivolous or vexatious cases before the courts.
“But this judgment sends a welcome and powerful signal to public officials across the country that the days of using public funds to wage their personal political battles are coming to an end,” says Mpempe.
“They will be held liable for the costs in their personal capacities.”
Dr Ruth Segomotsi Mompati District Municipality
The court ruled that Mononela had been unlawfully placed on precautionary suspension on February 22, 2021, without being given adequate time to defend himself.
The municipal manager was placed on suspension by Mayor Kgalalelo Sereko, without a council resolution, which was supplied after the fact without hearing representations from Mononela.
All this happened just days after the previous executive mayor was removed from office by the municipal council by way of resolution.
Three days later, newly-appointed mayor Sereko removed the municipal manager and issued a media statement claiming the suspension was as a result of an advance payment to R16.1 million to a company called HT Pelatona, and for “failure to prepare budget adjustments”.
An internal municipal report provided to Moneyweb appears to show that the R16.1 million was not a pre-payment to HT Pelatona as alleged by the council, but was paid in terms of a contract for services already delivered for the installation of a tank and pump station.
Mpempe says none of this makes any sense unless one understands that an internal political war is raging within the ANC in North West Province, and those who stand on the wrong side of this factional battle are being sidelined.
“We strongly suspect that with the ANC conferences coming up in North West, this is an attempt to remove people who stand in the way of those who intend to misuse public funds to advance their own political agendas.”
Mononela was replaced as municipal manager by Teko Gaanakgomo, who reportedly does not have the required qualifications for the job.
Mpempe says he continues to hold this position, despite the municipality being ordered to remove him due to lack of qualifications by the provincial MEC for Cooperative Governance, Human Settlement and Traditional Affairs (Cogta).
Also removed from her position was former executive mayor Boitumelo Mahlangu, who successfully challenged her suspension in the North West High Court. The municipality appealed this ruling last week, and the appeal ruling is being awaited.
Meanwhile the mounting legal costs associated with these irregular suspensions are being paid for by taxpayers.
A report by Municipal Money, a database of local government finances run by National Treasury, shows the municipality is hardly a bastion of financial rectitude.
The latest figures available for the 2019 fiscal year show that irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure accounted for 93% of operating expenditure.
The Auditor-General issued a disclaimer for the municipality in 2019, on the grounds that there was insufficient documentation to form an opinion on its financials.
Municipal Money also shows that nothing was spent on repairs and maintenance for the two years from 2017 to 2019.
For every R10 spent on building and replacing infrastructure, R0.80 should be spent every year on repairs and maintenance, equivalent to 8% of the value of property, plant and equipment.
The municipality relies on 98.4% of its income from provincial and national government, with only 1.6% being generated locally, and virtually all of this is from interest and investments.
The municipality’s loss of two key court cases involving the suspended mayor and municipal manager, and the awarding of punitive costs in the case of the latter, may dampen enthusiasm for running up legal costs at taxpayer expense.
Taxpayers are paying for all this
Mpempe points out that it’s all South African taxpayers who are footing the bill for these legal extravagances, as the municipality is almost entirely reliant on transfers from the national and provincial governments.
“It’s time for the provincial and national Cogta departments to start paying attention to these shenanigans at DRSMD municipality, which is part of a pattern we are noticing in North West, in particular.”
Nearby Taung Municipality reportedly ran up legal bills of R27 million in less than two years, most of them related to internal disciplinary matters.
Mpempe says the Centre for Good Governance and Social Justice has addressed its concerns over these issues to the provincial MEC, but has yet to receive a reply.
This is an admission, says Mpempe, of paralysis on the part of the department.