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Lebo Makhene-Pulumo provides an update on the uThukela Municipality under the leadership of Mayor Ntandoyenkosi Shabalala. Sadly, legacy problems continue to haunt the new administration…

One of the things that were achieved by the 2021 local government elections was the ushering in of new governments throughout KwaZulu-Natal and in other pockets of South Africa. The people marked their crosses next to the political party of their choice and made it possible for coalition governments to form and oust the ANC.

The election of Ntandoyenkosi Shabalala as the District Mayor of uThukela Municipality is a result of a coalition formed between the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the Democratic Alliance (DA), and they unfortunately inherited a broken municipality that has been eroded under the leadership of the ANC. It would be naïve of them if they did not anticipate the backlash from leaders of the previous administration, but I for one remain baffled at the accelerated pace at which this current 2021 administration is expected to turn around years of maladministration seemingly overnight.

uThukela District has three local municipalities and its people have been forced into a situation of existing within a district that is under administration due to rampant corruption and a total disregard for the people who are owed service delivery and a functioning state.

But what are the costs of a dysfunctional municipality and what price does the public pay for such? Cheap politicking and mudslinging will forever seek to provide a smoke screen so the public is not privy to the real issues. Blame shifting is the order of the day when it is apparent that the ANC has failed to hold its own members accountable, thus compromising service delivery and failing to deliver on many constitutional mandates, including the provision of water.

Today, the IFP is blamed for lack of service delivery whereas the previous administration has left insurmountable debt that negatively impacts the ability of the municipality to function optimally. The Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) was left with no option but to appoint an administrator to take over the running of the district. The municipal debt at the time stood at a staggering R816 million.

Just to illustrate the extent of the rot, this amount was accumulated between 2018-2021. A clear indication of an administration whose main objective was to loot for the last time and not render services to the people. Surely all this cannot continue to rest on the shoulders of the IFP, as they were not in control at the time yet find themselves in a situation where they have to contend with a non-existent budget.

An indicator of the elaborate plan to completely bankrupt the municipality post the ANC is the fact the municipality has 1 200 officials whose appointments can directly be linked to councillors. No doubt their loyalty lies solely with the individuals who provided a gateway into the municipality and not with the community in dire need of service. On election day and on the day of the inauguration, dozens of employees were hired and the mayor had to swiftly retrench them. The municipality was already under severe strain. The legacy of the previous administration is far reaching as some of the appointments included employees with five-year contracts, whilst others were employed permanently. An administrative and financial burden of epic proportions.

These dubious employments are the reason for the breech that has seen the municipal staff under the previous administration exceed the 40% threshold and instead sit at an unusually high 50%. This current administration has discovered ghost employees and has put an end to chronic absenteeism by municipal employees. Staff members are to be at work and performing duties that they are contractually obligated to perform and they will not be remunerated for failure to show up at work without prior arrangements in the form of leave applications or emergency reasons that are beyond their control. Not under the watch of the IFP. It is because of some of these tough stances that the IFP is under constant attack, but the mayor remains steadfast because restoring the district to a functional state will no doubt have positive spillover effects across the other local municipalities that constitute the district.

How can the district not be in a position where it contends with an unfunded budget when previously over a period of 2016-2021, 800 municipal employees consistently claimed for overtime every month? The focus has clearly been on draining funds through salaries instead of addressing service delivery concerns. Poor administration and failure to submit tenders timeously led to them being disqualified and National Treasury not releasing funds.

The current income of the municipality sits at R13 million, whilst expenditure is at R816 million, and the situation created by the ANC will take approximately 10 years to correct. Despite numerous insinuations and blame shifting exercises, these challenges were not caused by the IFP and the impacts being felt now are a direct result of the previous administration. Even with grant applications to assist with projects that will be beneficial to the community, ratifying the financial conditions of uThukela will take a decade.

Part of the reason for the enormous debt can be attributed to water tankers and rentals. There is a water challenge in the district, thus creating a heavy reliance on water tankers as a temporary measure. However, new trucks have not been purchased and the district has to contend with utilising trucks that are as old as our democracy. This results in constant breakdowns that cannot be funded by the minuscule budget.

Long-standing contracts where signed with service providers who are to date failing to transport water to the community. Some of these service providers are owed since 2016, 2017, and 2018, and they are looking to this current administration to settle their invoices. A near impossible task given the budget constraints and the fact that the municipality has been under section 139 since 2017. However, the community needs water and the district has subsequently had to hire other trucks to deliver water, this is often done at the expense of the mayor. He along with the speaker and municipal manager have resorted to funding some operations using their own funds because the municipality is bankrupt.

uThukela District presently needs R32 million to buy new water tankers. This would not be the case if vehicles were maintained accordingly, depreciated, and replaced consequently. The sale of assets is a form of income generation for the municipality but if there is no clear vision and no punitive measures for the horrendous misuse of government funds, vehicle are sacrificed and funds siphoned. Debt will therefore continue to rollover much to the despair of IFP administration that is working tirelessly to rectify the situation. The cost of this is detrimental, hence the mayor’s office providing water and paying for it out of pocket.

The pipes in the district are from the 1950s and they have never been replaced and the old administration are sending people to sabotage the new administration by deliberately causing pipe bursts and blockages.

But what is the real cost of service delivery failure and it being inherited by a new administration? When seasonal rains comes, one can almost always expect that uThukela will become a victim of flooding, because infrastructure maintenance under the leadership of the ANC was non existent. Yet employees earn salaries in the range of R30 000 and with the addition of overtime claims, salaries escalate to tune of R60 000. Yet it doesn’t translate to work and that is why the mayor has had to halt overtime and subsequently appoint an investigator to check the functioning of the pipes for service providers claiming overtime. Overtime must translate into service delivery outputs that are tangible and not manufactured. This has not been the case in uThukela and has required some tough and unpopular decisions to be made.

A faster turnaround time has been introduced for attending to sewer-related queries. It has been discovered that infrastructure was deliberately vandalised by people who were paid by unscrupulous enemies of public progress, to place foreign objects such as rocks and sand to block the system. This led to appointed service providers charging exorbitant fees and taking months to fix something that can easily be fixed in 30 minutes. Under the administration of the IFP, this has been corrected, but due to the prolonged period of overcharging and underperforming, the municipality currently owes service providers over R4 million. It is inherited debt due to corruption, but it hampers the ability to pay current service providers and ultimately creates an impression that the IFP is not doing enough, which is a fallacy that requires constant correction.

It is such acts of fighting for service delivery and advocating for the community that have shone a negative light on the mayor. People had become accustomed to mediocrity and unduly benefiting from state coffers that they are now willing to do anything to retain that power, even to the detriment of infrastructure and lives. Fundraising efforts have also been compromised as the provincial government has interfered and accused the mayor of corruption. Befitting seeing as they are unaccustomed to hard-working, solution-driven individuals. This is why Disaster Management efforts have been completely ignored because the ANC is not interested in solutions that do not result in lining their pockets.

Getting things done in uThukela remains a challenge, yet the current administration remains steadfast and focused amid the death threats and the dangerous political terrain of the province of KwaZulu-Natal. The IFP have had to contend with death threats that have been reported to the police, with cases being opened and investigated. Unfortunately, members have been killed and many of the perpetrators are still evading the police. The staff at the mayor’s office has also fallen victim to death, which is an indication that anything and anyone associated with progress is not safe.

With unemployment being at an all-time high, the district requires industries to provide services and employment, however, that is proving difficult as Transnet relocated from Ladysmith (under uThukela District Municipality) to Newcastle (under Amajuba District Municipality). The move would not have been necessary had the municipality performed optimally and not frustrated residents, businesses, and state-owned enterprises. The relocation of such a vital entity steers jobs away from the district, thus making the fight against poverty alleviation and unemployment a tough one.

Since assuming office, the mayor of uThukela has embarked on a concise but dangerous journey to turn things around. It has not been without insurmountable challenges, but his fortitude will be beneficial to the community that he serves. The halting of fleet maintenance that used to cost the municipality R5.6 million monthly but failed to translate to service delivery was a brave decision. Interfering with inflated costs that are a direct link to corrupt activities are a death wish, yet the mayor forges ahead for the benefit of the residents.

Whilst successfully curbing costs in this regard, there are other elaborate schemes that continue to haunt this new administration such as the failure to award a R40 million tender where four service providers were initially selected.

It took eight weeks to start the process afresh and there was a further delay that needed ratification, thus National Treasury took the money back. This is yet another case of compromising service delivery in favour of corruption. The far reaching implications haunt the new administration and unfortunately for the residents, it means they remain without much-needed services.

The journey of taking over a municipality that has been crippled by maladministration is one riddled with thorns, but it requires a strong leader such as Ntandoyenkosi Shabalala to usher in change and restore the dignity of public service. He is a man that will not remain silent, even though silence ensures his safety, as Abraham Lincoln said, “To sin by silence when they should protest, makes cowards of men.” The IFP administration in uThukela District is one constituted by brave men and women who are committed to changing the lives of people.

Lebo Makhene-Pulumo is the part-time Senior Managing Director at Letoya Makhene Foundation, as well as a ghost writer, editor, and consultant.

By Editor