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Landmark court ruling highlights crisis in SA’s cities and towns

Court grants an application to dissolve the Makana Local Municipality.
A landscape image of the town of Makhanda (Grahamstown). Image: Shutterstock

A high court in South Africa has passed a landmark ruling with far-reaching implications for municipalities that fail to carry out their constitutional duty to citizens.

The Makhanda High Court granted an application by the Unemployed People’s Movement that the Makana Local Municipality be dissolved. The court ordered that the Eastern Cape provincial government, under which the municipality falls, appoint an administrator to run its affairs. It will be the second time this has happened.

In 2014 the city was placed under administration for three months. This was because it was financially vulnerable, wasn’t maintaining infrastructure and service delivery had crumbled. At one point residents went without water for nine days.

That intervention failed to fix the problems.

Last year citizens turned to the judiciary, signalling that they were no longer willing to give government a chance to fix the problem. They are hoping that the judiciary can help solve the crisis of governance.

South Africa’s Constitution stipulates that local government must ensure the provision of services to communities in a sustainable way, promote a safe and healthy environment and encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations.

Municipalities are the third tier of government after provinces and the national government. This tier is also the closest level to ordinary citizens, and as such, forms the basis of the relationship between government and citizens.

Judge Igna Stretch said in her judgment that the conduct of the Makana municipality had been

inconsistent with the 1996 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa … [by] failing to promote a healthy and sustainable environment for the community.

The ruling is a victory for activists who have been embroiled in a long-running battle against the dysfunctional and incompetent municipal council run by the African National Congress (ANC). The party governs the country and most municipalities.

This is the first time in South Africa’s democratic history that citizens have been able to argue successfully in court that local government is not living up to its constitutional obligations. The ruling effectively opens the door for others to challenge poor service delivery due to incompetent and dysfunctional governance.

The precedent-setting ruling is set to cause jitters in municipalities around the country. It might see more municipalities being challenged in court. It signals that when internal structures of accountability are dysfunctional the courts can provide recourse for citizens.

It could have broader implications too. South Africans will elect new local councils next year. The court’s ruling fundamentally undermines the ANC’s electoral claim that it’s creating a “better life”. It signals that the party effectively failed at fulfilling the constitutional mandate given to it by the electorate.

Decades of decline

The current crisis in Makana has been in the making for almost a decade. The seriousness of the situation surfaced in 2011 when it became apparent that the municipality had cash-flow problems. By 2013 there were clear signs that it was in distress.

In 2014 the municipality was put under administration for a period of three months. This meant that an administrator, and not municipal executives, would oversee its day-to-day business.

Despite this, the situation never improved. Financial vulnerability, failure to maintain critical infrastructure, and a dysfunctional billing system continued. The delivery of basic services, such as clean water, gradually ground to a complete halt:

“The city’s decrepit water and sewerage infrastructure has resulted in massive leaks of both fresh treated water, and sewage flowing down suburban roads and past schools.

Uncollected rubbish decomposes in piles on every street in Grahamstown east and informal rubbish dumps have multiplied across the city.

The roads are potholed; cattle, donkeys and other stray animals wander unchecked in roads, including national and regional roads such as the N2 which circumnavigate the city.”

The council is barely able to spend 2% of its budget on maintaining critical infrastructure. And amid a major water drought, the council effectively “chased away” NGOs willing to help by not paying them.

The Makana municipality has been unable to address the decline in governance, financial mismanagement, as well as rampant corruption.

Makana is not unique. Only 18 of the country’s 257 municipalities received a clean audit from the Auditor-General in 2017/18.

The South African Local Government Association is increasingly concerned about the parlous state of financial management and performance by municipalities.

The root cause of this collapse is that governance systems are built on patronage, rather than the principles of good governance. Appointments are political rather than based on merit, and executive and municipal positions become collateral for political support.

Systems left unfixed

In 2015 a forensic investigation report detailed corruption and maladministration, implicating senior officials and then executive mayor of Makana Municipality, Zamuxolo Peter.

But those implicated have not been held to account.

The national ANC leadership attempted some intervention, replacing the Executive Mayor, but it left an ineffective municipal council in place.

Makana provides a good example of how patronage in a party-dominant political system undermines good governance. This hampers the ability of municipalities to fulfil their constitutional mandate of delivering services for citizens’ benefit.

The ANC is very aware of this problem. Yet, it is incapable of addressing it.

Party’s poor response

The Eastern Cape government has said that it intends to appeal the groundbreaking Makana court ruling, claiming it violates the principle of separation of powers. The decision is clearly driven by the ANC which runs the province and is concerned that the ruling will be used against it ahead of the local government elections.

The decision to “test the judgment to its fullest” will effectively see the provincial government seeking ways to overturn a ruling that holds politicians accountable for their governance failures.

Instead of rooting out a culture of patronage and lack of accountability in the municipalities it governs, the ANC would rather turn the issue into one of alleged judicial overreach.

Unless it changes, its ongoing electoral decline may turn into a spectacular fall come the 2021 elections.The Conversation

Joleen Steyn Kotze, Senior Research Specialist in Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery at the Human Science Research Council and a Research Fellow Centre for African Studies, University of the Free State

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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OK. Now what? The officials are still there, getting paid.
In 2014 nothing happened, nothing stayed fixed. This coming election they will still vote ANC.

Nothing will get fixed or improve.

“High Court granted an application by the Unemployed People’s Movement that the Makana Local Municipality be dissolved” – effectively meaning the council members are all fired and the movement can take control of the city council and then also fire incompetent officials / employees. The problem with most city councils originates from the elected council members being grossly incompetent or negligent, mostly both and then it results in poor financial management and poor appointments of senior officials and staff. This court ruling is absolutely necessarily, very important, in the interest of South African citizens and about high time! France.

Dissolved means dissolved …. no payments … good bye … have a nice day!

Dear Mr President, in response to your publication denying that the state is dysfunctional. We all disagree with with you and now the justice system also says that the state is dysfunctional. I would suggest that you go a look up the word dysfunctional in the dictionary and see what it means … actually let me help you…. it means not working, disorderly, non functional, broken!!
That is the state of the nation sir!, it is dysfunctional everywhere!
The country will now dissolve every part of the dysfunctional state state one part at a time. It is time sir ! The people have spoken !

I totally agree. No sympathy for the people as they keep on voting cANCer…

Well, this judgement confirms what we have been saying all along – the average voter should be protected against his own destructive and deadly mindset. Democracy enables the majority to turn their environment into a representation of their mindset. When the taps run dry, sewage run down the streets, hospitals and clinics fall apart and children drown in pit toilets, then this mindset is toxic. Democracy is like a loaded shotgun, destructive in the wrong hands.

The problem is, no matter how many judgements we have, the court cannot change the mindset of people. The court can only insert a “trip switch” or “circuit breaker” between the intellectual capacity of the “collective” and the resulting reality of failed municipalities. This circuit breaker is privatisation. The means of production, or the means for service delivery, in this instance, should not be in the hands of the “people”, but rather in the hands of individuals who can deliver those services. We need accountability and reciprocity to clean the streets, and to get the water running in the taps.

The current system is unsustainable and it will kill more people until free enterprise and capitalism come to the rescue.

Africa is Africa Sensei – They will never learn !!!!!

Democracy is the pathetic believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.

Of course they will appeal. You are taking away their gravy.
They have destroyed Grahamstown and Port Alfred.

Money to appeal but not for basic services!
Cyril says in his latest newsletter NO further cadre deployment – if he’s serious he’ll intervene and stop an appeal. (Newsletter article on Business Live)

Cyril is to be ” recalled” – it’s just a matter of time.

Of course they have money to appeal. It’s your and my money. We, the taxpayers, are funding their appeals.

Incitatus, the next question is: ‘Are ratepayers (and/or taxpayers) actually aiding and abetting crime by paying diligently???!!!’ Surely we are fully aware of how our payments are used to commit crimes, therefor we should be held accountable…just a thought!

I heard this story about a guy who used to work at the municipality of some small town in the Southern Cape (could be Joubertina if I recall correctly?) His job was inter alia to dig graves in the local cemetery. However, he was a man with ambitions and got involved in politics. With the change in 1994, he became the local mayor for the ANC. The first thing he did was to go and buy himself a brand new BMW. Overnight this man went from grave digger to mayor and this was widely heralded as a “victory for transformation”. But it didn’t take long before a bun fight broke out between those “on the inside” and those wanting a piece of the new found pie. Soon priorities changed, and later service delivery, water, sewerage etc all stopped functioning. Nobody jumps out of a plane without thinking things through. However, we as a country did one massive change in 1994 and hardly ever stopped to think how things would work in future.

In 1994 bowing under international pressure they did a huge disservice to SA. No one was trained to take over, plain and simple, add to that a juvenile mindset that sees a bank balance as a packet of smarties and we have what we have now.

Change smarties for bananas

100 % jnrb , the majority of the majority are not nearly “on the same page” as those responsible for real progress and what we have now that full inclusiveness has taken place (and actually gone overboard with BEE etc) is that water is finding it’s level!! Standards will never rise back to where they were for people on this forum , no matter how we gone on and on , that is a guarantee !!! It’s a numbers game , averaging out !!!

That’s exactly what happened in Grahamstown and where this article is incorrect in saying the issue arose 10 years ago.
My parents lived there for 20 years and were very involved in the community…1994 and a young revolutionary guy took over as the first mayor…he promptly bought himself a big BMW and told the majority of the people actually doing real service delivery work to take a hike so his mates could get in. All heresay from my folks but the word or concept of a budget was completely foreign to him whereas he understood cash in pocket very well…..the problem when spending someone else’s money is when that person runs out of money…

The dynamics of effective local governance becoming wholly detached from the precepts of politics.

A case of less talk and more action.

Disrupt the inefficient, costly and unsustainable sewage process, start installing humanure toilets throughout the towns. Pay residents for their excretions- separate urine and poo and incentivise initial cooperation with a subsidy or retainer. Most essentially, provide the necessary (fairly uncomplicated) training.

Fix roofs and install suitable gutters and rain tanks. Upskill the community.

Tax commercial farmers around the districts for polluting the land, water, and air with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Incentivise them to switch and begin substituting these chemicals with organic humanure and composts available from localised depots.

Generate biogas electricity from distributed rural locations, alongside these organic compost and fertilizer depots.

Turn sewage plant treatment centers and slurry dams into aquaponic farms, increase the supply of healthier fish meat proteins making yellow tail and tilapia meat available throughout poor and rural comunities. Improve the nutrition and brain power development of our communities.

Public service to retain and maintain the heritage communication networks such as 2g and the old television frequencies- make these free to everybody. Connectivity slowish but reliable and free.

The above will generate far wider streams of local revenue and many, many 4th industrial sector jobs.

I suggest that green ambassadors interested in rolling out the above solutions register as independent candidates via the IEC mechanisms. You need R1000 and 50 signatures on a petition.

I am keen to register in Dihlabeng- can I find the support?

Viva the Green economy and the 4th Industrial Revolution Viva!!

The problem is the (inclusive) name of the town/region.

You’ll see, once the majority of voters gets educated to such a level where most will vote for the change the regions name from ‘Die Slap Beng’ back to “Bethlehem”….everything will improve. Guaranteed.

Take most rural towns…once it’s name change to be inclusive….give the council a decade or so to ‘transform’ itself, then review again.

Must be “the name”. (….but a lot needs to happen before a name can simply be changed back. Either demographics needs to change or education.)

MichaelfromKlerksdorp(obviously), the name Dihlabeng is a Basotho name meaning “The place of flowers”. It is a lot more original than “Bethlehem” (borrowed from the bible).

Your rather poor Afrikaans-centric explanation of nonsense above does little other than show your own sad ignorance and verge racist discrimination against anything you interpret as “the other” or “different”. A lack of appreciation of the inherent value we have to add to the whole as a diverse community of people.

Also, the region Dihlabeng incorporates not only Bethlehem but also Clarens, Fouriesburg and Rosendal- a fairly vast region from Golden Gate to Mapoetsoe, basically.

This semantic exercise you are engaging in serves only as a sad example of the non-material details that keep people bickering amongst themselves without addressing the Real underlying problems of skills, outputs and actions… it is exactly this that feeds into the ghastly array of slick-mouthed and by definition corrupt useless politicians.

A word from the Bible is definitely more original (in a global sense) than “The place of flowers”. You are blinded by your guilt.

Nevertheless, one appreciates your positive mindset & noble mentioning of various solutions. But look around you from others’ comments….it’s clear I’m not the only person attacking the current corrupt status quo.

Let me guess: as positive as you may seem, it is typically the liberal elite that are the ones emigrating first 😉 I predict that within 10 years you will also give up on SA & leave for the UK (while the rest of the negative minded conservatives try to keep faith and slog it out in SA)

Ellison Blaze, I think you must stay out off municipalities. You sound dangerous. OK?

Pursuing environmentally friendly policies that cut down on pollution, improve the quality of the food supply, create skills and jobs where they are needed as well as conserve scarce resources (like water) scare you?

I guess imaginative and intuitive solutions are not your forte- yoiu need therefore not apply.

Nothing changes without a little disruption, you scare easy!

Ellison, I won’t apply. Carrying around buckets of cr@p is not my forte.
You want to take us back to the bucket and nagwa system?

Talking sh1t

Actually… buying and selling sh12 (and piss). Not very cryptic, but it could also go crypto!!!

Unless the usual suspects are personally held liable and their assets and pensions targeted nothing will happen.

This problem is UNIVERSAL. Be it SOE’s, Munis, national govt (…good example is the SAPS top brass in total confusion during Dr Maponya’s funeral).

You cannot appoint ill-equiped people to perform their job diligently, despite that they get the relevant pay for it to do it well.

In fact…THIS IS PREDICTED in the Bible:

Proverbs 30 verses 21-23

If you have an electronic Bible (like the “You Version”), and change the translation to “Afrikaans / “Die Boodskap” you’ll have fun!

Here goes….extracts from The Bible ‘You Version’

Spreuke 30 vers 21-23:

“Daar is drie dinge wat ‘n land op die randjie van ‘n afgrond bring, en vier wat hom heeltemal kan verwoes:

die skoonmaker wat president word;
‘n dom mens wat hom net vol eet, maar niks wil doen nie;

‘n werkster in ‘n lae lang wat sommer die baas word”

Don’t believe it? Have a look yourself!
(Other translations may not be as direct, or translated with the clumsier writing style of the King’s English or Van Riebeeck’s Dutch…but the implied meaning should be the same.)

The same province that appeals the decision needs to appoint an administrator? ha ha

Crazy. How will that fix anything. The only time they will sit up and take note ( although still do nothing) is when their fat salaries are no longer paid.

In Cyrils latest news letter he has “vowed no more poorly-qualified people in key state posts – even if they’re politically connected”

Let me remind him that words are free. It’s how they are used that may cost him.

We’ve heard all the jargon before! Only recently we were told that the Zondo commission will be applying their minds and the guilty will go to prison. The Zondo commission is just another SOE in disguise, worthless with no teeth. Lots said, little done

Mr President, it’s not so much the educated that you need, it’s the experienced. With the ANC’s policy of BEE ( a subtle word for reverse segregation, retribution) your ANC led government destroyed every SOE. You are now picking the fruit of your ill minded choice

It’s not the decisions you took, it was the choices you and the ANC made that has put this country where it is today

Yet your Government is too blind to see this

Did you and your comrades not learn what segregation does to a country? Apartheid you hated, yet Apartheid you adopted under the guise of BEE.,like it or not, it’s a fact

On the one hand I applaud this decision and think that finally citizens may have an effective means to take back control of their lives and towns from the politcals.

On the other hand, now what? The municipality is dissolved so what replaces it?

Major hullabaloo over a wedding venue not happy to accept a same sex wedding reception due to conflict with owners’ religious beliefs. Sexual orientation rights will now trample the religious freedom rights of business owners who effectively will not be able to conduct business without breaking their commitment to their beliefs. SAHRC happy to jump in there and ensure certain religious business people are not able to run a business due to their personal religious choices not being respected.

Now is it not time that politicians are taken to task (court) for citizens’ rights to decent basic government services being trampled upon? A class action with individual politicians being personally targeted would be a welcome sight to many citizens. In fact municipalities should be completely de-politicised. Professional managers without any political answerability should run municipal services according to a standard service charter with key performance criteria being set. Residents can voice their concerns via an independent Chapter 9 institution. Small provincial oversight committees (oversight over a number of municipalities) are all that is needed to ensure mandates are properly followed. Time to get the SAHRC involved there?

Crisis in SA cities is an understament.

Business opportunity for all those fired, retrenched, overlooked white municipality managers! Like the ones who are being employed as “consultants” in the SOE’s.

The ANC fought for the country but now must be forced by courts to run it properly for the people. They have such a tragic story to tell.

Agree, I don’t get it either.

Also the majority pushed for workplace transformation, AA/BEE, decades ago with merit not high on the list. Workplace performance appraisal doesn’t exist. Hence service delivery suffers & management of financial resources to the brink.

Then THE SAME COMMUNITY who benefited through AA/BEE/transformation, now expect to receive acceptable service levels in return from the employed inept. Makes no sense.

The manifestation is seen is the municipal collapse under the ANC.

The issues here are purely Darwinian, only time will correct via natural selection. I’d say about 50, 000 years

ANC is worthless to the people they “purport” to help. It’s all about self-enrichment

Fantastic stuff. Accountability is key! There are so many Green shoots. It’s a Fantastic time to invest whilst things are cheap. Saffers have lost billions in the UK and Australia whilst the ones staying are milking it through private equity deals. This is the land of opportunity! We are the luckiest nation in the world. Everyone needs to do their part. If you see something not being done, do it yourself and make a positive change.

A man dies !The hundred strong mob says he will live again! .The doctor in the mob examines him and confirms the man is dead but the mob insists they will resurrect him .The man of science shrugs his shoulders and leaves the mob chanting him back to live .Viva majority rules again!

This could be a great opportunity. What does the law say, can ratepayers divert their rates to a new entity?

In my suburb the ratepayers are already taking over many municipal services.

The solution to fix cities and towns is simple: Make the councilor positions honorary again, with no payment.

It worked well pre-94. You attract a class of person with life and business experience, that puts the interests of the community first.

The money from the salaries saved (R4.6bn) can be used for service delivery.

You’ve got the proper solution here. Career politicians should be banned from municipalities. As a matter of fact, career politicians should be banned from politics altogether.

*lol* yes Sensei 😉 OUT with politicians altogether…..after-all, they unduly interfere into the private sector/business, which they care (or know) very little about.

End of comments.




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