Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen: Eastern Cape

Enoch Mgijima Municipality to fight residents’ application to have it dissolved

Enoch Mgijima Municipality to fight residents’ application to have it dissolved
Queenstown Panorama by George Bayliss via Flickr

Papers before court state that the municipality is in a financial crisis and unable to deliver basic services such as water, clean air, electricity, waste removal, road infrastructures and firefighting.

Despite allegations that it was responsible for a dire lack of services in Komani and the surrounding towns, the financial collapse of local government and a constant state of crisis with electricity provision, the Enoch Mgijima Municipality confirmed this week that it will fight an application in the Makhanda High Court to compel the Eastern Cape premier to dissolve its council.

The municipality also triggered a riot in Komani when it cut the electricity to non-paying households last week – mostly because it accidentally cut off 20 households whose accounts were paid in full.

Earlier this year a group of civil society organisations and individuals in the municipal area, called Let’s Talk Komani, filed the application, saying it was their last resort as all other engagements with the Enoch Mgijima Municipality had failed. The municipal area includes Komani (formerly Queenstown), Hofmeyr, Whittlesea, Steynsburg and Molteno.

The chairperson of Let’s Talk Komani, Ken Clark, stated in papers before court that the municipality was in a financial crisis and unable to deliver basic services such as water, clean air, electricity, waste removal, road infrastructures and firefighting.

The municipality was placed under administration in 2018 but the administrator appointed to sort out the problems, after writing a report titled “How to collapse a municipality in full view of its vanguard” was threatened with violence and had to leave after he fell seriously ill. A financial recovery plan that he drew up was never implemented despite an acting administrator, who was appointed after he fell ill, trying to do so. The acting administrator also advised that the implementation of the financial recovery plan be taken out of the hands of the municipality.

Auditing reports filed with the court to support the Let’s Talk Komani application state that debt collection and internal controls at the municipality were in such disarray that the entity had become solely reliant on government grants to keep going. 

The municipality was using Eskom payments to pay staff and grants to pay Eskom. When Eskom threatened to cut off the municipality’s electricity because of non-payment a payment plan was proposed, but the municipality defaulted on this twice. By September last year the municipality owed Eskom R344-million.

The Border Kei Business Chamber obtained an interdict at the end of 2019 to keep the lights on and prevent mass power cuts.

Clark added in his affidavit that few if any accounts are distributed by the municipality.

Treasury warned last year that the council’s budget was not considered fully funded and as a result the municipality was requested to cut down on staff-related costs including cellphone allowances and overtime. Instead, the municipality cut down on buying bulk Eskom electricity.

This will be the second such application in the Eastern Cape High Court. In January 2020, the Makhanda High Court ordered that the council of the Makana Municipality be dissolved as its failure to provide municipal services was unconstitutional. Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane and the Makana municipality have asked for leave to appeal that ruling.

Mabuyane’s spokesperson, Mvusi Sicwetsha, originally said that a decision on whether Mabuyane will oppose the Enoch Mgijima matter would be taken in the first week of February. On Monday, he said he “had nothing to share” about the issue. 

Jacqueline Wijtenburg from Let’s Talk Komani said they would meet with a representative of Mabuyane on Thursday. 

“On request of President Cyril Ramaphosa, a special adviser to the premier is meeting with us on Thursday for discussions,” she said. 

The spokesperson for the municipality, Lonwabo Kowa, said they would oppose the legal action to have the municipal council dissolved. 

“The municipal lawyers have filed [the necessary] notice,” he said. 

Clark said in an affidavit that they have asked the court that anybody opposing Let’s Talk Komani’s application be ordered to pay a punitive cost order in their personal capacities as they believe it would merely be an attempt to “defend the indefensible”.

Last week, after the municipality cut the electricity to non-paying households and those with illegal connections, a violent protest erupted in the Komani suburbs of Aloevale, Newvale, New Rest and Victoria Park. No notice was given as the municipality’s credit control policy required. Residents have demanded that a residents’ committee be put in charge of the council.

Kowa said the municipality has faced a “challenge” of non-payment of services throughout Enoch Mgijima Municipality.

“In resolving the problem, a revenue enhancement strategy was adopted by council to improve the collection rate and this included encouraging and even compelling customers to pay for services and cut off from the system all those who are illegally connected. 

“Some community members have claimed that they were not properly informed and demanded another 14-day notice before non-paying customers are switched off,” he said. 

He admitted that in Victoria Park municipal officials had erroneously switched off about 20 households who had made payments and payment arrangements with the municipality. 

“This led to a protest and when the municipality realised its mistake all the affected households were reconnected. The protest was quelled after consultation with protesting residents.” MC

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