Dullstroom, Machadodorp, Belfast and Watervalboven are four little towns in the eMakhazeni municipality in Mpumalanga that might be described as holiday-maker heaven: famous for the gentle art of fly-fishing, nestled in mountains and lakes and forests, with a dewy climate and wild lilies that grow on the mountainsides. But Heaven has had a bumpy ride for the last few years, with constant protests and service disruptions and a steady decline in town infrastructure. And for the last four months, Heaven has not been functioning at all. By NIKI MOORE.
At the beginning of last year, municipal workers at eMakhazeni went on an unprotected strike. The reasons for the strike are multiple and complicated: relations have been strained between the council and their workers since 2012. In fact, as far back as 2009 the national Department of Local Government launched a R20-million enquiry into service delivery protests in the region, although it has never released a report.
“There are a number of compliance issues with the municipality,” says SAMWU regional secretary Sam Lekhuleni. “Just when we think we have solved one, then another one comes up. There have been many strikes. During the last one, in November, the council decided to set up a task team to investigate all the grievances. But this task team has never even met. In two months, nothing has been done. So the workers are now on an unofficial strike. It is difficult to know what is happening. Sometime the workers work, sometimes they don’t. The municipality is very arrogant, they don’t work well with us.”
The rate-paying citizens of these towns, heavily dependent on tourism and holidaymakers as their only source of income, have only had intermittent municipal service for more than two years and none at all for the last four months. Private contractors fix the electrical outages at their own expense, private residents cart away the refuse to the dump, civic groups fill in the potholes. The council is completely dysfunctional, and residents and businesses have decided that enough is enough.
“None of our municipal officials comply with the minimum competence requirements for their job,” says Dullstroom Ratepayers Association Chair Peter St Clair. “We have been writing letters to everyone, from the MEC up to the Minister, asking them to do something about it. There has been no response. When the water was cut off in Belfast for three days, it was directly as a result of the lack of qualifications of the Manager of Technical Services, Lucas Sindane. It was the Exxaro mine that stepped in and provided a water pump at their own cost of R230,000 in order to supply water to Belfast.”
St Clair confirms that a task team was established on 21 November in order to solve the impasse between the district municipality and its workers. “They were supposed to report back with recommendations within 21 days – they have not yet even started.”
“In the meantime there have been a number of incidents of sabotage at the water treatment plant and reservoirs. Our ‘honeysucker’ was burnt. The strikers littered the main streets and tried to prevent cars from passing through the town. We have members of the SANDF protecting our public installations, but there is not enough money to feed them so the townspeople are having to supply them with food.”
Last week, business and residents of the town met to discuss what they could do to kick-start services and prevent further damage. They could get a High Court order to compel the police to protect their strategic assets, but this would cost R80,000. Another option was to declare a formal dispute with the town, put their rates and taxes into a trust account and take over the services themselves.
“The problem is, the municipality has completely lost control of the town,” says St Clair. “We have asked for help everywhere, but there is nothing. I know that withholding rates is an extreme move, but the current valuation roll has expired, and the municipality missed the deadline for validating the new roll, so at the moment they are not legally permitted to charge us property tax.”
Withholding rates might sound an attractive option for fed-up ratepayers, but according to citizen pressure-group AfriForum, it won’t achieve much.
“There is not much point in putting rates into a trust,” says AfriForm regional representative Tiaan Esterhuizen. “The district is already completely bankrupt. And the rates base is very small, so most of the town’s income is from the Treasury anyway.”
“What we have done, as AfriForum, is to take emergency action. Water provision is a complicated issue because of things like water licences and bulk infrastructure, but there are a number of things, like streetlights and potholes, that we can do something about. Firstly, we will put the municipality on terms that they need to fix the streets. If they don’t do it, we will appoint a contractor, and then recoup the payment from the municipality.”
“Our goal was to work together with the municipality to assist them in getting the town working again. The residents of the town are more than willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved. But it is impossible to work with the municipality. They are very aggressive and uncooperative. Our only option is to put them on terms, and then do the work ourselves. We want to prevent any further deterioration.”
Esterhuizen is rather gloomy about the options open to ratepayers: “There are only three things one can do: take the municipality to court, which is expensive and takes time; get involved as a civic organisation and do the work yourselves; or leave the town completely, like businesses have done in the North West.”
The problem with option three, as seen in the North West, is that the remaining residents who do not have the wherewithal to relocate, are faced with unemployment as businesses close, rising costs of living as the need for travel to neighbouring towns increases, and even further deterioration in services. It is not a happy scenario.
SAMWU is equally at wits’ end about the impasse between council officials and workers, and agrees that there is arrogance and aggression. “Our workers have lost faith in the municipality,” says Lekhuleni. “The only thing that can help now, is if that task team starts to deal with its grievances. We are really worried about this situation.”
Numerous attempts to contact the municipality failed, as no-one was answering the council switchboard. DM
STOP PRESS: According to unconfirmed reports on Tuesday, the eMakhazeni municipal strike is over, and the municipal manager, Mrs Thandi Shoba, has been fired. One of the reasons given is that the municipality obtained a qualified report in 2012/2013 – however, if that is the case, then 90% of municipal managers in South Africa could face the chop. It is more likely that the MM was fired to placate SAMWU, and possibly as a result of two years’ worth of protests and petitions from residents and ratepayers. Someone, finally – perhaps – is listening.
Photo: A quiet street in Belfast (Courtesy of Paul van Vuuren)