South Africa

South Africa

Water crisis: Curve balls and chaos at Cape Town council meeting reveal political games

Cape Town will enter a new phase of drought management, with Executive Mayor Patricia de Lille having been stripped of some of her powers, particularly regarding the water crisis. In a special meeting called by De Lille herself, the City Council was to vote on two matters – the proposed drought levy and the punitive water tariff. They were instead thrown a curve ball when Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson also introduced extensive amendments, which put restructuring, proposed by the DA Federal Executive on Sunday, back on the table. With the Mayor’s party effectively having publicly turned its back on her, the meeting was a stark reminder of the deepening tensions that ratepayers will ultimately bear the brunt of. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

Read the earlier news flash here

The news was mixed for drought-weary Capetonians at a special council meeting held at the Cape Town Civic Centre on Friday. While Councillors voted to abandon the controversial drought levy that saw some 60,000 public comments coming in, they did pass a motion to introduce much higher punitive tariffs. Moreover, they approved a move to hand over water crisis management to the Deputy Mayor and Mayco member Xanthea Limberg.

It’s not just ratepayers carrying a cost. Executive Mayor Patricia de Lille appeared blindsided by the move to strip her of some of her powers, despite her apparent intention to fight back on Thursday. At a media briefing on Thursday, she had told media that according to legal advice, she would be continuing to execute her mandated duties until further notice.

Further notice, it appeared, came very quickly. De Lille complained during the session that she was not informed of the proposed amendment to the motion on the punitive tariff, which was brought forward by Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson. Neilson read a long list of proposed changes regarding De Lille’s powers, which prompted complaints from councillors that these were unrelated to the matter at hand. ANC Councillors asked to at least be issued a text copy of the amendments and a moment to caucus. It seemed they, too, were surprised.

Prior to Neilson’s curve ball, however, there were indications where the chips were falling. The EFF deadpanned their comment on the “Drought Alliance” and later the “Deurmekaar Alliance”. The ANC slammed the notion that “Tony Leon is now all of a sudden the spokesperson for Capetonians”. COPE criticised a lack of transparency and inaction in the face of multiple warnings of a coming water shortage. The FF+ argued that high water tariffs were unnecessarily punitive.

ANC Councillor Xolani Sotashe – to an outbreak of chaos – fumed: “Who is a mayor but doesn’t have powers? Does the mayor go to the caucus, drink coffee, eat biscuits and go home?”

Ultimately, voting was overwhelmingly in favour of both motions – though Speaker Dirk Smit did not specify which motion was which – with 124 and 125 respectively voting in favour; 58 and 57 voting against respectively; and three councillors abstaining.

From the outset, it appeared the deck was stacked against De Lille. During a closed session earlier on, transport chief Melissa Whitehead had been suspended pending a formal inquiry. She is involved in three investigations that could leave her facing criminal charges.

Meanwhile, chaos reigned once the session opened to the public. Following Whitehead’s suspension behind closed doors, the first few minutes of the open session were occupied by heated argument over the absence of the council chief whip, who had sent apologies. Insults, booing and shouts of “shut up!” were the order of the day, and ANC councillors staged a mass walkout – having taken a “principled decision” not to listen to the mayor. For some time, shouts, singing and booing could be heard from outside the gallery. During the walkout, law enforcement attempted to stop media from shooting video, though they relented after some pushback.

De Lille, for her part, did not present much new information to the Council. Her address was virtually a repeat of the one she delivered to media the previous day, barring a barbed opening during which she accused ANC councillors: “This [walkout] is just a show this morning.”

The crisis has reached new severity,” De Lille reiterated. “We can no longer ask people to stop wasting water. We must force them.”

She added that water was “a very cheap commodity in our country” and said she was “only pleading with council” given that the plan was to exempt households using less than 6,000 litres of water per month from the punitive tariff. The new water restrictions, which limit individuals to just 50 litres per day, would be effective from 1 February, she reiterated.

This is the moment when we can bring about the fundamental behavioural change that is needed to save us all. If we reduce demand enough we can still get our water delivered to our houses,” she said.

But if the battle lines were solidified between De Lille and her party, it was clear the Council was no more cohesive. ANC Councillor Fiona Abrahams opened the first can of worms, asking whether it was the public or the DA that had instructed the U-turn on the drought levy. “We have had this council before and you all voted yes,” she said. “Before us is a report that is not legally compliant. This report was going to be forced on council if they were not instructed by their political champions.” Despite having been promised that they would receive the public comments in disc format, said Abrahams, this had not occurred.

The City wants to implement the drought charge on 1 February and it takes 30 days to adjust the system,” she said. “This means the system was already adjusted without the comments being considered. Why the rush [to call this meeting]?”

According to Abrahams, it was “unfair to Council to only give us a summary [of the comments] and not tell us who commented what”. To shouts of “shut up!” she added: “Is there now a separation of the DA in the Caucus and in the Province?”

Sotashe slammed what he termed the interference of DA leadership in local government. “We are not going to allow Mmusi Maimane to take decisions on behalf of this council. This is a multi-party forum,” he said. “Decisions must be taken by this council.”

It was unacceptable, he added, that “they are going to direct the caucus to strip the mayor of her powers. It is the council that grants the powers to the mayor. If the deputy mayor had a deal with Mmusi Maimane, James Selfe, all of them, to realise a particular agenda, that is not going to happen. We will not allow a faction of the DA led by white liberals [to dictate to us].”

Other bugbears

The EFF alleged corruption in City management, referring in particular to the hiring of what Councillor Andrew Arnolds termed “a Tony Leon Gupta company”.

But like COPE’s Farouk Cassim, Arnolds also slated the length of time it took for CoCT to take action on the impending drought crisis, though he placed blame squarely at the DA’s feet. “The DA must take full responsibility because the water crisis did not come without a warning,” he said.

Cassim, meanwhile, called for “total transparency” regarding the various water augmentation programmes, including the costs and timelines.

Ratepayers want to know if what is being done is part of a long-term sustainability plan and if [resources are] being properly ringfenced. They need this information,” he said.

He further referenced a 2017 report by GreenCape that noted several recommendations for how the city could save more water. “Council should only go to ratepayers for increased rates once it has ticked all the boxes,” he said.

Cape Town should also strive to attain No Drop status, which requires a 90% score, he added. Previously, Cassim said, Cape Town achieved 83%.

The City needs to achieve this status so that it can persuade ratepayers that it left no stone unturned to ensure water was not lost,” he said.

The FF+’s Councillor Erika Botha-Rossouw, meanwhile, pointed out that it was “very odd” that changes communicated to media on Thursday had been broadcast “as though it ha[d] already happened”. Like other councillors before her, she lambasted “poor planning”. But perhaps her most notable comment was firstly a concern that budgets lost through canning the drought levy would possibly be recouped by increased costs to ratepayers elsewhere; and secondly, she alluded to the possibility that citizens would be more cooperative and “peaceful” in saving water if there were less chaos regarding its management.

Unsurprisingly, several DA councillors, notably Councillor Stuart Pringle, took the opportunity to remind the meeting that it was the responsibility of national government to ensure mandated contributions were paid up, and that this had not occurred.

For the ACDP’s part, it praised the role played by citizens, particularly one Sandra Dixon who commandeered the website, in collecting meaningful feedback to give to the city regarding increased tariffs.

Of the 60,000 comments received, some 55,000 came from the site, said Councillor Grant Haskin.

However, he added, the party was concerned about an “orchestrated cyber-attack” aimed at immobilising the website, which involved some 45,000 messages coming from just three IP addresses. The perpetrators remain unidentified.

The comment process had “woken up” ratepayers and delivered “democracy at work”, Haskin said. “The irony is that it took such a nonsense proposal.”

According to some Councillors, including Haskin, the claim of a R1.7bn budget shortfall for the year was also an exaggeration – it was closer to R1.4bn, Haskin said.

However, he added, there was “no consideration as to why each ward councillor isn’t expected to sacrifice R500,000 from their ward allocation”. “We are challenging you to fight the water crisis,” he said. This, too, was met with a chorus of “shut up!”

But perhaps the most sobering comment came from Councillor Yagyah Adams for the Cape Muslim Congress, who said he had “no time for political games” or “opportunists” before pointing out: “Water is life. Without water there is no life, no jobs, no progress. BBC and CNN have stated that Cape Town will be the first city in the world to run out of water. My ancestors have lived here for 300 years. We survived slavery, colonialism, apartheid. I don’t know if we can survive water.”

Unfortunately for citizens, Adams is likely right. Also unfortunately for citizens, however, the provision of water is – for now – wrapped up precisely in those “games” he, and many Capetonians, so desperately want to avoid. DM

In a statement on Friday night, De Lille said she had not been consulted about proposed amendments that impacted on her delegatory powers. “Amendments to the System of Delegations must follow due process. In light of due process not being followed before these amendments were proposed to Council, it makes them reviewable.”

Photo: Mayor Patricia de Lille speaks at a media briefing at a sports field in Maitland, 16 November 2017 . The mayor demonstrated the operation of the proposed water points should the city reach ‘Day Zero’.