Wearing our brains on our sleeve.
22 March 2018 04:09 (South Africa)
South Africa

Fear and Loathing in Wolmaransstad: The catastrophe of a collapsed municipality

  • Niki Moore
    Niki Moore.jpg
    Niki Moore
  • South Africa

The following story is so outrageous that it could only be true. It's about the mismanagement of a small town in the North West and how political patronage and factional loyalty trumps competent governance and common sense. The most outrageous thing about this tale, is that Wolmaransstad is not unique: it is not even unusual. This scenario, with variations in detail, is duplicated in almost every small to medium town across South Africa. By NIKI MOORE.

Wolmaransstad has a municipal manager by the name of Ronnie Jonas. He is a man who enjoys, according to several sources, mutually-beneficial relationships with some highly-placed ANC provincial officials.

By August last year, this town's administration was found to be in such chaos and disarray that it was not able to fulfil one of its most basic functions: providing water to its citizens. The provincial government exercised its powers under the Constitution [most notably Section 139 1(b)], and placed the municipality under administration.

What this meant, according to administrator attorney Iqbal Motala, is that while the council could still do its legislative work (i.e pass budgets and make by-laws), its executive function (i.e the provision of basic services, payment of bills and other boring administrative stuff) was taken over by himself.

The first thing that Motala did, as the new broom, was investigate the state of the town's management. With the help of an advocate, he uncovered fourteen cases of severe financial misconduct on the part of the municipal manager, to the tune of about R9 million. He suspended the municipal manager.

But there was a loophole. According to the Municipal Finance Management Act of 2003, the municipal manager is also a council's accounting officer. So, while the Constitution said in 1996 that the administrator's powers supersede those of the municipal manager in performance of his management work, it says nothing about the work of the accounting officer. And of course it can't, as the MFMA created this new creature called an accounting officer only in 2003.

“This is a loophole in the law,” says Motala, “which has been exploited by municipal managers if they want retain their positions. There is currently a bill in progress to close this loophole, but until it is passed that discrepancy in the law remains.”

So Jonas – disregarding the fact that his own poor performance had plunged his municipality into crisis and that he really should have resigned in disgrace – took Motala to court to retain his powers. In the meantime he still arrived for work every day. This was problematic, as the municipal staff were confused about to whom they should be reporting. If Motala issued an instruction, Jonas would countermand it.

Motala sought an interdict to keep Jonas off the premises. Jonas promptly brought a counter-application, which is still pending. It made life extremely difficult for the administrator, who was trying to rescue a sinking ship with a disgraced municipal manager breathing down his neck.

Even the ruling ANC in the town was unhappy with this state of affairs.

“The administrator wasn't given space to work,” says a senior ANC member in Wolmaransstad who declined to be identified (for obvious reasons). “He was starved of resources and constantly undermined.”

“One of my first tasks was to deal with a large number of labour cases,” says Motala. “The Municipal Manager was running the town like his own personal kingdom, hiring and firing at will. This led to dozens of labour disputes. The legal bill at that stage was already about R5 million.”

Some of the decisions taken by the Municipal Manager are quite breathtaking in their audacity.

“There was a dispute about the employment of three people,” says the ANC source. “The three took the council to court. The case dragged on and on, with mounting costs.”

Motala's first job, once he was appointed, was to negotiate a settlement with these disgruntled parties, to the satisfaction of everyone – except Jonas. Jonas refused to sign the agreement, and they all went back to court.

The judge was less than pleased with Jonas's conduct, saying that it appeared Jonas was 'on a crusade of his own'.

He ruled against Jonas and ordered he pay the costs in his personal capacity. Jonas promptly entered an appeal, and it is still pending. Jonas claimed that the council had mandated him to oppose the court case, and he has the minutes to prove it. Opposition councilors refute this, and say that if he has falsified the council minutes, it amounts to fraud.

In this growing resemblance to chaos, another case involved Jonas unilaterally suspending an employee who took the council to court. The judge found that Jonas had acted recklessly, and told him to pay half the client-attorney costs out of his own pocket. Jonas instructed the council financial officer to pay the bill in full. This matter is still being investigated.

Against this backdrop of continuous fighting, no municipal business is conducted.

“This town is in a complete mess,” confirms the anonymous senior ANC member. “The biggest problem is political meddling from the provincial government, and factional battles within the council. As a result, the MPAC (Municipal Public Accounts Committee) that plays an oversight role is toothless. They do nothing. All this means that the town is not working: there is no revenue collection, no service delivery, no work being done.”

“In Leeudoringstad,” says DA councilor Don van Zyl, “the council workers are sitting all day on the pavements because no-one has given them any work to do. They tell me they have no transport and no equipment to do any work.”

People are also dying. Apart from the sickness caused by drinking dirty water, two children have drowned in the last few months in unfenced sewerage dams.

“It is bad here,” says community activist Ncedile Molosi, who lives in Extension 10. “We have no services. The sewerage is running into houses, there are no roads, there are no streetlights. The problem is there is a lot of corruption in this council. I know they are going to kill me one day for speaking out, but I must speak the truth.”

Due to the chaos in council, Motala's six-month oversight tenure was extended three times. The threats against him increased until he was having to employ three bodyguards.

“I was continually getting death threats,” he says. “But I think we managed to contain a lot of the damage. We managed to rein in the spending and pay creditors. At one stage Eskom was going to cut the town off, but we managed to avert that.”

Iqbal Motala's last term came to an end in June. On June 2nd, the Wolmaransstad council got a warning from the National Treasury. During the course of their routine monitoring of council performance, they had picked up that Wolmaransstad was still in deep trouble. They warned that, unless some serious and rapid steps were taken to solve the problems of mismanagement, the town faced the danger of having their Treasury funding cut off.

“This is a very serious threat,” says Motala, “and it is very rare that the National Treasury should issue such a stern warning.”

But the very next day, the decision was taken by the provincial executive that Wolmaransstad had turned itself around so successfully that the administrator was no longer needed. Jonas could return to work, and everything in the garden was lovely.

“I was really amazed by this,” says Motala, “as I had not yet briefed anyone on the council performance.”

So Motala left on June 10, but he has not given up.

“I have prepared a dossier for the Hawks and the Public Protector,” he says. “We've reached the point where there will be arrests.”

In the meantime, Wolmaransstad and the other towns in the Maquassi Hills district remain dysfunctional. But surely it should not be so difficult or costly to remove a man who is so clearly a destructive force in his job?

“Yes, there is an easier way,” says Motala. “Just like in Bloemhof” (where three babies died from polluted water and three top council officials were fired) “the council or the MEC or the minister can dismiss these officials.”

“But Jonas has friends in high places,” says van Zyl. “As long as the ANC is in charge in the province, nothing will change. All that effort from the administrator, all that cost, all the momentum gained, it's now all lost.”

Calls to the mayor's office, the municipal manager's office, and the office of the provincial spokesperson went unanswered. The municipal switchboard just rings. DM

Photo: An overflowing manhole spills evil-smelling sewage down a road in Extension 11 in Wolmaransstad. According to a local resident, the sewage has been running down the road for two weeks. Childen walk through the sewage on their way to school.

  • Niki Moore
    Niki Moore.jpg
    Niki Moore
  • South Africa

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