The Constitution promises us the right of access to electricity, adequate shelter, water, and a clean environment. These are the underpinnings of service delivery. But in the North West province, people have learned to live without these things. Every so often, there is a death or a violent service delivery protest. After a flurry of headlines the government makes a statement, promises an investigation, and throws some money at the problem. But no amount of money or investigation will solve the basic problem in the North West: cadre deployment that leads to corruption and mismanagement. The towns of the North West are dying: businesses are closing down, farmers are selling out, jobs are disappearing, and services are grinding to a halt. But until the towns of the North West are served by competent people who do their jobs, there is no solution in sight. By NIKI MOORE.
A person can exist without electricity, using other forms of fuel or lighting. A person can exist without housing, perhaps rigging up a makeshift shelter. A person can exist without refuse removal, although a life surrounded by rubbish is not pleasant. But a person cannot exist without water. The provision of water is the most basic need of service delivery.
But in the Bojanala District Municipality there is a water crisis. The town of Brits has been cut off completely for four days, leaving residents, businesses and industry floundering. For twenty years the population of the area has grown, new townships have been built, existing townships and residential districts have expanded… but the water provision has not kept pace.
“We have plenty of water in the Crocodile River,” says district council member Paul Hendriks, “but we need bigger pumps, we need bigger pipes, the purification station should have been upgraded. We have been promised these things, and money is budgeted, but nothing happens. The money disappears.”
An entirely new township in the Madibeng district was built without any water infrastructure being installed. Other townships have pipes and taps, but they are dry. Enterprising residents have dug their own boreholes and sell water to their neighbours. People collect drinking water from irrigation canals, even though the water is untreated and not supposed to be consumed. The area is peppered with boreholes and water pumps that are not functioning and are beginning to decay.
A large borehole installation in Jericho, about half an hour’s drive outside Brits, which was sponsored by the neighbouring Hernic mine, stands idle and dry. It was handed over to the Jericho community in May 2012, but has not functioned since. Despite this, the mayor announced in a council meeting in May 2014 that the borehole was “functioning well”.
“Five years ago, the regional IDP prioritised water infrastructure,” says ward councillor for the township of Jericho, the DA’s Eric Thabane. “But there is never any provision in the council budget. This is because the politicians will only take on projects where they can steal money. If they can’t get kickbacks, they won’t approve the project.”
And that is the entire problem in the Madibeng Local Municipality. The councillors have deliberately been sabotaging water supply in this area for ten years. They and their friends buy water trucks and get paid handsomely to deliver water to the dry towns.
There are ten trucks. The council pays about R1,3 million per month in total for the trucks. This works out to approximately R4,000 per truck per day. There is no way of measuring how much water is being delivered, or even if any water is being delivered at all. Two of the trucks belong to a ward councillor. The ownership of the others is cloaked in mystery. Some politically-connected individuals have bought their own private trucks. They fill their tanks up for free at the council boreholes and sell the water to township residents for R500 a tank. It’s good business.
Several councillors and council employees have been investigated for fraud, but manage to evade consequences. If the evidence is damning, they resign and get another job in another municipality. It’s a corrupt merry-go-round of deployment that is killing the district.
“You can never talk to anyone in council,” continues Hendriks, “they are always ‘too busy’. Last year there was a water protest in Mothotlung and Damonsville. The police used live ammunition on the protesters, and four people died. The minister of Water Affairs, Edna Molewa, came here and made lots of promises. We are yet to see anything happen. Quite a few businesses, like car-parts manufacturer Autocast that employed 250 people, have closed down because of the lack of water. The towns are really disintegrating.”
While Brits has a problem with the supply of water, the town of Ventersdorp has a problem on the other end of the scale: sewerage. Ventersdorp is blessed with a spring of fresh sweet water that only needs to be channelled to the town. Despite a few water stoppages due to bad maintenance of pumps, the supply of water is not an issue. But the sewerage works is dysfunctional, with sewage overflowing the settlement dams to ooze into nearby rivers and dams. It’s a health disaster waiting to happen.
“There would not be a problem if the council employees did their job,” says Ventersdorp councillor Alan Jones, also DA. “The town engineer is inadequately qualified, which means nothing gets repaired, upgraded or maintained. If there is a severe problem, he calls in consultants from other towns, but he does not know enough to make sure they do a good job. So we get ripped off, the job is badly done, the consultants leave and the damage remains.”
The sewage works at Ventersdorp is so badly maintained that it actually contravenes its permit conditions to operate. An RDP development, a township called Toevlug, was built without any sewer installations at all. People who live there use the veld as their toilet.
A retired engineer, Gawie Yssel, has offered on numerous occasions to assist the council at no cost. “But they told me they were insulted by my offer, as it implied they could not do their jobs,” he said. “So they prefer to bring in consultants from Johannesburg. I suspect there are kickbacks involved. This council is the worst – they are only interested in seeing how much money they can make.”
Being a councillor is, indeed, a highly lucrative profession. One councilor has managed, without the benefit of a formal education or fixed employment, to amass two houses and ten luxury sports cars in less than five years.
Ventersdorp, however, still has it quite good. To see real dilapidation, one only needs to travel an hour or so west to reach the district of Tswaing. This tiny farming district has been without water or sewage insfrastructure since 2005.
In the last twenty years, the population has increased from 5,000 to 30,000. None of this influx has been planned or controlled. The area is entirely dependent on boreholes for water, but lack of planning and maintenance means that the boreholes deliver less than a tenth of the water that is demanded by the population.
“If there was proper planning, and employees did their work, there would be enough water,” says councilor Carin Visser of the DA. “But pumps are over-used and then the boreholes are damaged. Stand-pipe taps are left open, so the tanks run dry. We were supposed to get additional infrastructure two years ago, but it never happened. We discovered later that the Ngaka Modiri Molema Water Authority, which manages our water, used that money to build themselves new offices.” The new offices are in Mafikeng.
“We have a lot of water wastage – almost 60% of our water is lost through leakage and damage. Tanks are rusting, pipes are broken, cables are stolen, no one even knows how many people live here and need water. There is no administration.”
Political factions are another problem: “If one faction tries to do something, the other faction will come along and destroy it. But the real problem is that we do not have competent people in council.”
The lack of water has caused many businesses in town to close down. The collapse has also created sewage hazards. The town’s sewage system has broken down completely. Sewage bubbles out of broken pipes. The sewage treatment plant is dilapidated, rusted, and dysfunctional.
“In 2010 we were put under administration,” continues Visser. “There was supposed to be a turn-around strategy. People came in, charging big salaries, and set up offices for themselves. Then we had the 2011 elections, and everything stopped. The town lost a lot of money because of that, and nothing changed.”
“The damage to our infrastructure is so extensive that I doubt it can ever be fixed,” Visser continues. “This is true throughout the province. It is not only the water that has collapsed. Our roads have disappeared. 68% of our electricity is lost. We have no fire service, no ambulance, no disaster management. Our economy cannot function at all without services.”
Further down the line, Wolmaransstad has similar problems. And according to DA councillor Don van Zyl, the town is running on empty.
“We did our town budget based on a 70% recovery rate of taxes and service charges,” he says. “But we are not even recovering 35% of what we are owed. Our bill with the Sedibeng Water Authority is R2,8 million per month. We only manage to get in between R600,000 and R800,000. Our monthly income from rates and taxes is between R4m and R6m per month, but our council salary bill alone is R4,6m per month. For services like refuse removal in Extensions 10 and 13, we have about 1,500 households. We should get in about R800,000 per month. We get R1,500.”
Like all the towns in North West, Wolmaransstad suffers from crumbling infrastructure due to inept financial control, corruption, maladministration and lack of skills.
“Here’s a small example,” says Van Zyl. “We have a truck for refuse removal, but the tyre is flat. There is no money to fix the tyre. So the municipality waits until the problem becomes acute, and then hires a truck from Klerksdorp. They use equitable shares for hiring the truck.” (Equitable shares are the monies paid by the national treasury to offset indigent services.) “So they spend our poverty relief money on keeping the town afloat.”
“The real scandal is that sometimes they also use those equitable shares to pay salaries when there is a shortfall. This is a terrible failure of administration, as those funds should only be used for paying for services for indigent people.”
Another example of the administrative chaos in Wolmaransstad is found in Extension 13. There are neat rows of RDP houses. But there is no water in the taps. Despite this, resident Benjamin Mogaligali regularly gets a municipal bill for water. At the moment he is running up a debt of more than R10,000 for water usage. But there is no water to be used. Benjamin buys water from a truck and fills up a tank in his front yard.
“I have tried to report this, and get some answers,” he says. “But no-one in council listens to you. No-one does their job. That’s the problem – they only want salaries, they don’t want to work.”
Municipalities are not entirely to blame for service breakdowns. Services are often abused by people who feel no compulsion to pay for them. For instance, taps are vandalised and left running for days, while flush-toilets in homes are used as convenient garbage disposals.
“Kitchen waste, animal skins, car parts, dead pets, towels, old clothes – all of these things get flushed and end up blocking the sewers,” says van Zyl. “I couldn’t believe it when we found a two-plate electric hotplate stuck in an outlet.”
The slow pace of maintenance and repair (if it happens at all) means that backed-up sewers and drains will ooze their noxious load for weeks out of manholes, into streets, onto playgrounds, through houses.
The nearby town of Bloemhof was in the news recently because of the death of several small children. They had been victims of exactly the type of water pollution caused by these weeping drains. The deaths and illnesses overwhelmed the local clinic, caused heads to roll and invited national intervention. Water Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane promised that R20 million would be spent on fixing the problem. But Bloemhof DA councillor Ignatius Snyman is not very hopeful.
“There is no point in spending any money,” he says. “It will all be stolen or wasted. We have incompetent and unskilled council employees. We have corrupt management. The infrastructure exists, but it is never maintained, never cleaned, never upgraded, never repaired. Our mayor and municipal manager might have been fired over this, but they have already accepted jobs in other municipalities.”
All the towns in the North West have similar problems: crumbling insfrastructure due to incompetent and indifferent council employees. “If only people did their jobs,” says Carin Visser in frustration, “there would not be a problem.”
But undoing twenty years of corrupt and inept management will require real political will. It will require politicians to make some difficult and unpopular decisions. It will require a fundamental shift in the way the ruling party manages its local governments. It will require skill and performance in employees, not loyalty and patronage. It does not, surprisingly enough, require much more money – but it requires that the government insists that it gets value for the money it spends.
For the North West, action will needed to be taken decisively and rapidly. The only problem is, for most towns, and for many people, it might already be too late. DM
Photo: A borehole at Sannieshof/Tswaing.
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine