Shock court ruling could save SA’s broken towns

‘The ruling means people have the power to go to court and throw corrupt politicians out of office and elect competent ones’ – Unemployed People’s Movement chair.
Image: A landscape image of the town of Makhanda (Grahamstown). Image: Shutterstock

Raw sewage on potholed streets, piles of garbage on sidewalks and water and power shortages became routine in the South African municipality of Makana. Then something extraordinary happened that could change the face of local government politics.

The High Court last month granted a civil rights group’s application to have the southeastern municipality’s council dissolved because it had failed to provide adequate services and properly manage its operations. Judge Igna Stretch ordered the Eastern Cape provincial government to appoint an administrator to run the district until fresh elections are held.

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Let the ‘Makana’ revolution begin
Landmark court ruling highlights crisis in SA’s cities and towns

The unprecedented 117-page decision sent shock waves through the ruling African National Congress, which controls scores of other towns hobbled by corruption and mismanagement. While the judgment is being appealed, the genie is out of the bottle. Community groups in the Enoch Mgijima municipality north of Makana have filed their own lawsuit to disband the council and others may follow suit.

“Democracy has been served,” Ayanda Kota, chairman of the Unemployed People’s Movement, which filed the Makana suit, said in an interview. “The ruling means people have the power to go to court and throw corrupt politicians out of office and elect competent ones.”

A succession of government reports has shown the mounting risk the 257 municipalities pose to the nation’s finances. Just 18 got clean audits in the year through June 2018, according to the Auditor-General. Local authorities are collectively owed almost 170 billion rand ($11.3 billion) for rates and services, and their inability to collect it from residents who are unable or unwilling to pay means they struggle to settle their own bills.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni will reveal whether municipalities will get additional funding from the national government when he presents the budget on Wednesday.

Makana Mayor Mzukisi Mpahlwa, who took up his post a year ago, said the court ruling didn’t take account of recent progress made in turning the district of 80,000 people around. About 90% of its debt is being collected, staff are paid regularly and water shortages caused by the worst drought in history are being addressed, he said.

“If this judgment compels us to be dissolved, all the municipalities without exception would be dissolved,” he told reporters. “This will create a very, very difficult situation.”

Brin Brody, the lawyer for the group that brought the suit and a 37-year resident of Makhanda — the district’s main town and home to Rhodes University — said he sees no sign of improvement. His view is shared by the town’s ratepayers and business forums, which backed the case.

“This municipality has destroyed the economy of its own town through mismanagement and inefficiency,” Brody said. “There is no money being spent on infrastructure. There is no management taking place.”

Stormwater drains go uncleared, livestock graze on sidewalks and piped water is on average only available three or four days a week in Makhanda’s suburbs. Property prices have more than halved over the past five years, according to real-estate agent Daphne Timm, who’s worked in the town for the past 24 years.

The neglect is even more acute in Joza on Makhanda’s outskirts, where sewage flows from leaking pipes into yards and dirt streets. The township’s predominantly black and unemployed residents can go for weeks without running water. A mound of trash festers next to a thoroughfare dubbed Pigsty Street by the locals, a monument to the collapse of garbage-collection services.

“We keep on asking them to solve our problems,” said Apollo Phillip, a 49-year-old community activist who’s lived in the area for two decades. “They keep on making promises but nothing happens.”

Ten Joza residents have filed a separate lawsuit aimed at forcing the municipality to tackle the sewage spills. That case, which is being handled by the non-profit Legal Resources Centre, has yet to go to court.

The upsurge in activism in Makana hasn’t translated into immediate political change. The ANC retained control of the municipality in a 2016 vote and has won subsequent by-elections — loyalty it’s engendered by disbursing welfare grants, jobs and housing.

While the main opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, have struggled to capitalize on the widespread discontent, the ANC may face opposition from a new movement that’s being set up by residents to contest future elections. The next vote is due in 2021.

“We want to put in place folk who are not going to be responsible to a political master,” said Dittma Eichhoff, a dentist who’s lived in Makhanda for almost 40 years and is helping coordinate the new structure. “This is about citizens sorting out a town.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa admits that municipalities aren’t being adequately managed and has given the job of overhauling how they are run to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, his co-operative governance minister. Planned reforms include appointing experts in all the nation’s 44 districts to advise and oversee several towns, and ensuring officials are appointed on merit.

Pedro Tabensky, director of the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics at Rhodes University, sees Makhanda’s experience serving as a possible catalyst for change elsewhere.

“We have a model for the rest of the country, a new way of doing democracy that cuts across class and race and ideology,” he said. “I didn’t think this was possible. If we succeed here, who knows what is going to happen?”

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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COMMENTS   21

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This has the potential to stop the slide towards chaos !!!!

May this court ruling continue to stand and may a horde of towns and cities follow the route of taking back control over our own communities – not only by dissolving the council but as an alternative also by relaying payment of municipality rates to a community rate payers association that can restore essential services and force change to the management and operation of local authorities. We can’t afford to wait for an ineffective government – for they are unable to bring about any meaningful, proper change.

It is not the government that are ineffective, the voters are ineffective.

The municipality is a tool in the hands of the people, just like the courts are a tool in the hands of the same people. In a democratic dispensation, the people control the legislature and the courts enforce the mindset of the voters.

The voter is like someone who is pretending to be a skilled carpenter. He breaks the drill bit, and then uses the hammer in an effort to cover up the damage to the wood.

This court case is a knee-jerk reaction. We need a permanent solution. We need property rights and the rule of law.

I think so too. It’s the only way to get rid of greedy, corrupt officials other than through pitchforks and torches.

It can only be a bastion against chaos if, when the election eventually takes place, the voters get rid of the ANC.
My prediction:
the ANC will be voted in with a large majority and the same cadres will resume their seats and the whole sad cycle will repeat.
Eish!!!

Cry me a river. The problem lies with ‘elect competent ones’. The voters just ‘elect’ incompetent ANC officials. They have ‘elections’ every 4 years and for about 25 years they just continued to ‘elect’ in the ANC.
Nothing have changed or will change.

…thinking along same lines here. How would this court ruling change anything, as the majority keeps on voting for their own corrupt & inept?

I was just thinking, it’s been a long time since anyone quoted Joseph de Maistre: “Every nation gets the government it deserves”.

Though I’m just interested in watching people taking legal action against their municipalities and then in by alections, voting them straight back in. Good for a laugh.

Chris Stoffel this is essentially correct. They will just keep on voting the same criminal incompetents in who will keep on raping, pillaging and plundering the fiscus. The only issue is that the electorate are currently able to escape the consequences of their actions. In more civilised countries such as Australia, the concept of a cross-subsidised magacity does not exist. Your rates are spent in your own local area (like the road outside your front door, your streetlights and the park down the road). In South Africa, Sandton rates are spent in Soweto. Soweto dies not need to pay rates as Sandton will always pay theirs for them. Soweto will continue to vote for this wealth transfer as long as the legal system enables them to do so. The court rulings must go a whole lot further. They must eliminate ate the concept of rates being a wealth transfer process at all levels. Be this enrichment of councillors or the mentality of non payment of services as others will do so for you. Only when these areas completely collapse and houses are knee-deep in sewage, will the electorate realise that the ANC is the source of their problems not the solution.

It’s not a Shock Court Ruling. It’s common sense.

OK so they get an administrator until next election. I really want to see who gets elected next. The same damned incompetent crooks????

When will people learn? Voters deserve the leaders they elect. This applies as much in Washington as Grahamstown.

Agree Johan. That’s why our majority voters get so poor service in return….its the type of leadership they deserve.

This is step 1.
But step 2, NOT voting the same corrupt incompetentd back into power again, is where SA voters fail time and time again.

With municipalities, I think this town is onto the only workable solution which is basically to elect local govt comprised of residents.
Keep the political parties out of municipal councils and watch the magic of service delivery happen.
Let local govts deal with local issues.

The parties can squabble for parliament.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma the appointed co-operative governance minister, says it all.
The sewage waste plant in the Vaal Triangle is deemed a disaster. Government appointed contractors to sort this out. Great, sucking up the waste in trucks to cart to JHB but caught dumping directly in the Vaal river.

Great ruling. Time to take back control!

Agree that South Africans deserve better than the ANC. Unfortunately, i do not necessary see that there is a good enough alternative yet. The DA had a chance, but seemed to have failed beyond Cape Town. They’ve also managed to spiral into self destruction by fighting for positions, etc.

Let’s all pray for a strong dominant party to arise that will rule unbiased and do what’s best for all South Africans.

The whole of the JPC at Joburg Council should be taken on for corruption and maladministration.

Under administration. Who are the administrators ? Looters ? A vicious circle of local and imported poverty and “smart” non payers ?

Has the real People’s Revolution begun? When those councillors lose their positions and salaries, will we see repossession and bond foreclosures on their assets?

Crazy daze ahead …

The solution to the dysfunctional local authorities is simple:

Make the city and town councilor’s positions honorary again – with no payment, only expenses.

It worked well pre-94. It attracted people with life, professional and business experience that put the interests of the town before their own.

It also saves especially the smaller towns a stack of money, that can be used for better services.

End of comments.

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