Is this the future of small town South Africa?

When the taps run dry and the lights go out.
Increasing municipal debt is being identified as a key strategic risk. Picture: Naashon Zalk, Bloomberg

The residents of Bethal, a small farming town in Mpumalanga, know what it is like to live without water. Rand Water reduced the water pressure by 40% in December when the Govan Mbeki Municipality missed payment on its arrears bill of R88 million.

When the taps run dry, schools and businesses close down. Parts of the town still have access to water, but most do not. On Saturday the municipality turned the water back on, but no one knows how long this will last. Local businesses and farmers have come together to solve the problem, trucking in water from surrounding boreholes to supply the town. Local residents have resorted to hauling buckets of water to their homes for washing and cooking. The town’s abattoir was shut down because it could not get water.

A week ago residents marched on the municipal headquarters demanding to know why the water bill has not been paid and when the taps would be turned on again. “We are expecting the lights to go out soon,” says Michelle Rademeyer, a local resident planning to campaign in the upcoming elections for Freedom Front Plus (FF+). There’s a good chance she will clean up in the election, given the level of disaffection with the current municipal leadership. Many residents suspect corruption as the cause of their dry taps. “We may be able to do without lights, but we cannot do without water,” says Rademeyer.

Local government an ‘irrelevance’

The local government has ceased to function, adds local town councillor Aranda Nel-Buitdendag. When that happens, residents take it upon themselves to provide basic services such as water supply and emergency services. The local government has become an irrelevance, or worse, an obstruction to daily life.

Residents know who to blame, and the ruling ANC can expect a thrashing in Bethal come election time. Smaller parties such as FF+ and the Economic Freedom fighters (EFF) are expected to gorge themselves on this mess.

Rand Water supplies bulk portable water to 17 municipalities in Gauteng, Mpumalanga, North West and the Free State. As of January 23, it was owed R708 million in arrears. Bushbuckridge Municipality, also in Mpumalanga, has had its water flow reduced by 20%. Worst affected is Victor Khanye Municipality, also in Mpumalanga, where water flow has been reduced 60%, impacting the surrounding areas of Delmas, Botleng, Eloff and Sundra. It owes Rand Water about R86 million in arrears.

Asked whether the delinquent municipalities were managing to catch up on the arrears, Rand Water cryptically replied: “Some municipalities have been improving and adhering to the repayment arrangements [more] than others.”

Other towns in Mpumalanga dependent on coal mining have been devastated, but for different reasons. Blinkpan, which abuts the Koornfontein Coal Mine, has been in virtual shutdown since workers stopped getting paid in October last year. Koornfontein, like its sister mine Optimum, forms part of the Tegeta group, once owned by the Guptas. Both mines were placed in business rescue in February 2018.

Koornfontein Mines, once owned by the Gupta family. Picture: Author

Several thousand families have been affected since the pay cheques stopped coming last October, and have resorted to raising donations from local businesses and good Samaritans to feed themselves. There is hope that the imminent sale of these mines by Tegeta’s business rescue practitioners will allow miners to return to work and receive back-pay. Mine workers are having to borrow to pay water and lights, and 20 workers have died – some from stress – in the last year, according to a spokesman from Feed the Miner, a non-profit set up to provide food to hungry mining families.

Municipality on life support

Louisville, also in Mpumalanga, is on life support after the suspension of mining operations at the nearly Lily and Barbrook gold mines three years ago, following the collapse of a support pillar that killed three mine workers.

In Emfuleni, south of Johannesburg, sewage is seeping into the Vaal River, creating an environmental and economic crisis. Unemployment at Sebokeng, the largest township in Emfuleni, is 54%, according to a North-West University study. Non-payment of utility charges has weakened the municipality’s capacity to repair broken infrastructure. This week, Reverend Gift Moerane, Gauteng provincial secretary of the South African Council of Churches, was appointed the new mayor of Emfuleni and tasked with restoring basic services and financial stability.

According to the auditor-general, just 49 of the country’s 263 municipalities achieved clean audits in the 2015/16 financial year, adding that irregular expenditure had increased by more than 50% to R16.8 billion. The figure is likely much more than this as the full extent of mis-spending was unknown. Irregular spending at municipal level was reported at R50 billion (though possibly as high as R80 billion) in the last financial year, prompting amendments to the Public Audit Act giving the auditor-general more powers to enforce recommendations and recover missing money.

The Municipal Demarcation Board says 70-80% of the population in municipalities, especially those located in the former homelands, are dependent on social grants. The suggested solution for some of these struggling municipalities is amalgamation.

Read: Amalgamation no silver bullet for struggling municipalities 

Eskom’s 2018 annual report puts municipal arrears debt at R13.6 billion, though this is likely an understatement. The figure for the previous year was R9.4 billion. “Municipal arrear debt has increased at an alarming rate over the last three years. It is assumed that municipal arrear debt will continue to increase due to poor cash flow positions of municipalities. Eskom will engage relevant parties to have appropriate policies and legislation revised in order to recover amounts due,” the power utility says.

Increasing municipal debt was identified as a key strategic risk, and one solution proposed is to curtail supply to defaulting municipalities. But even here, Eskom faced opposition. Supply interruptions planned for Maluti-a-Phofung in the Free State were halted through a court interdict won by a group of customers. In terms of an interim court ruling, Eskom agreed not to interrupt supply to the customers who brought the application, provided they pay Eskom directly until such time as the final application is heard in court.

The top three defaulting Free State municipalities – Maluti-a-Phofung, Matjhabeng and Ngwathe – account for almost R5.4 billion of the total outstanding debt to Eskom of R13.6 billion.

Arrears debt as a percentage of revenue worsened to 2.73% in 2018 from 1.14% two years previously. Some 82% of these arrears came from just 20 municipalities, with nearly half of this being owed by Free State municipalities.

Joburg, with its towering skyscrapers, may as well be a million miles from small town South Africa, where local governance has sprung a fatal leak.



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It is the future of SA – Not just small town. (no mention of the eksdom arrears of R17 Billion by soweto)3

Correct, South Africa only has one method of learning, the HARD WAY.

That is also not guaranteed.

Third world s… holes. Trump was correct.

At least my house is a pocket of excellence

@Moneychief….probably the most illogical comment to date

Yeah, just like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

Keep going ‘Moneychief’, its looking good !

The culture of non-payment is another of the ANC’s corrupt chickens that is now coming home to roost. Well Done ANC!!!!

This is where Helen Zille’s proposed tax revolt starts making sense. If local government institutions fail, ordinary citizens should refuse to pay rates and taxes for which they receive no value. They should re direct their taxes to an account from where the required services like water and electricity can be paid for without going through the hands of greedy cadres with no clue of service delivery.

@Dc….100% agreed !!

As long as we keep handing our hard earned money over to the thugs in power, nothing will EVER change !


The tap in your bathroom is the ultimate test for the political system. Voters employ their faculties when they make their choices. Their vote reflects their level of education, their intellect, knowledge of history and basic economics and their cultural beliefs and habits. All of these matters are distilled and concentrated into the choice made at the voting station. The results of the election tells you everything about the voters, and nothing about the official who was elected.

When the most basic test for a political system is a failure, when taps run dry, lights go out and sewerage and refuse litter the streets, it tells you nothing about the officials who are supposed to prevent or solve these problems, but it tells you everything about the people who appointed them. Good managers source and train their employees to deliver work of good standard. Bad mangers complain about the shoddy workmanship of their employees. A failure of the workforce is always a reflection on the capabilities of management. The failure of service delivery is always a reflection on the people who appointed the officials in charge of service delivery.

Now it is clear that we do not have a service delivery problem in South Africa. Our underlying problem is the mismatch between the sophisticated nature of a democracy, and the actual level of sophistication of the average voter. In any democracy, the sophistication of the infrastructure and efficiency of service delivery will always rise or fall to equalize with the level of sophistication and efficiency of the average voter.

When we think about this logically, it becomes clear that a democratic system is an extremely dangerous tool in the hands of the average South African. It is like a child who plays with a loaded shotgun. Disaster and mayhem is imminent. Our democracy is a loaded shotgun in the hands of a child.

A clear distillation of the facts at hand !!!!

Thanks Sensei…as clear as day & with a refreshingly different angle. (well, when the water in SA is gone, we’d have to find a another word replacing “refreshing”…re-stinking(?)

OK, if one take the mentality/education of the average majority voter in SA & compare that with current western infrastructure….it is out of sync. The rest of African continent has much less of such western infrastructure, while our “people” is little different than the rest of the brothers on continent.
Since SA’s infrastructure is out of sync with rest of Africa. Hence is HAS TO fail long-term…in order to reduce itself to the African mean-average. Am “glad” to see the prediction is slowly happening.

By 2040 South Africa will have 5-10mil people max. The large population SA has today cannot be supported with ongoing slow collapse of (water & other) infrastructure, and business. The good news is “ship SA” will not sink in one day…but slowly does it over time, allowing time for fin & personal planning.

@ Sensei…..great post !!!!

“Our underlying problem is the mismatch between the sophisticated nature of a democracy and the actual level of sophistication of the average voter. In any democracy…”

However, when the ‘average voter’ in SA does not get free water, services and electricity, they riot burn and destroy. This is what we can expect on a much wider scale in the future until the economy shuts down and we enter a Mozambique/Zimbabwe scenario.

@ Sensei: You might find this interesting if you have not yet come across it. Google “IQ and the Wealth of Nations”. Basically confirms what you write about in your comment. It’s a bit dated but nonetheless valid I.m.o.

Proudly brought to you by the anc (another new corruption) , totally nurtured , completely taught by senior anc members . Then they say we will self correct ……. what total poppycock!!

I bet you R10 that the Mayor of this thriving metropolis of Bethal does not drive a Hyundai i10.

you really think an egotistic ANC cadre with an ego the size of a universe to feed would drive such classy cars! They are as vulgar in their choice of cars as they are in their total disregard for the needs of people.

Soweto is a fine case in point. Billions in municipal debt but the ANC dare not close the tap and shut off the electricity lest it anger its highest concentration of voters.

Just wait for the day when those voters are the last taxpayers. That will be great fun to watch – from afar.

Maybe a solution will be to “punish” the management and mayor or these towns, not the people living there. The municipality is responsible for paying to the service providers, not the people who pay their accounts on time. If you cut water, electricity, sanitation and refuse removal to these individuals, who are diverting the money, maybe they will realize the consequences of their actions, or lack thereof.

Good point. They should be held personally and completely accountable for the debts.

Cadre protection.

This article is long overdue. It is just scraping the surface of the dire straights municipalities are in.
This could be the ANC’s weak underbelly in the next elections.
Eskom needs to also cut its services until it is paid. It is a business not a charity.
Rate payers need to rise up and challenge what is happening with their money.

ANC’s weak underbelly it sadly won’t be. Those who vote for them either do not comprehand what the reality is that they face or are sufficiently well indoctrinated not to want to face that reality which the article describes. Like lemmings over a cliff they ululate with oblivious joy while they plummet to despair.

As a past chairman of a rate payers association in rural Eastern Cape I used to meet the Municipal manager on a regular basis.
I once mentioned to him that there was no water in the town and businesses were struggling.
His answer?? He looked me in the eye and said, “That is really not a problem”

Good point, pwgg.

This example of the MM’s apathy, is actually THE problem.

….for this MM, it will only become a problem if there’s not sufficient funds to pay municipal salaries.

He used to sell office furniture at month end to pay salaries.

Oh I forgot to mention this municipality is under management at the moment and it is even worse. My DIL has to travel 70km to renew a vehicle license.

As the expression goes, look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves, so too you need to look after the small towns.

The problem is that any municipality, no matter, how large, is difficult to run and the ANC have messed up spectacularly through their mismanagement and corruption,=.

It’s a pity that all Municipalities suffer are not competent and effective enough to remedy all the problems. By joining local authorities is not going to work it will only burden those that that are already contributing to the overloaded staff complement.

The EFF now want to Merge all provinces into one!!! The surest way to destroy absolutely everything that Currently works !! This is supposedly Economic freedom !!!. They simply have less than a clue , maybe why the largely Clueless Majority will vote for them .

…the EFF is merely the “ANC destruction in overdrive”.

Why are we surprised? If anyone is, they are fools. This was always going to happen and it is. Let the decolonization begin and let the people live in the squalor they create. My reserves of empathy and kindness are now empty. I’m afraid that SA probably has an 80 / 90 % chance of becoming a full blown failed state

…given enough time, I’m afraid it could be 95%.

In a country where corruption, non payment and theft is allowed, more of the same will happen! Our legal system failed us and the only that benefits are the lawyers and thieves.
The primary economy of mining, construction and agriculture has been stopped by the government; foreign investors departed; local shares values decline whilst CR set up commissions that clearly indicates to Zuma and his thugs BUT nothing will happen.
If you dont take punitive action for wrong doing people will just continue doing wrong! Soweto owes billions for utilities but nothing is done! Why will they pay?

No need to worry anc; The public still does not make the connection between the cross they make when voting and their living conditions.

happens when you use services to buy votes and deploy people who do not qualify as trench diggers to run the services and municipalities…

End of comments.



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