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Sign of the times: Business forum revolts in Frankfort, Free State

Sign of the times: Business forum revolts in Frankfort, Free State
Locals from the Namahadi Township outside Frankfort are trained to fix potholes after a decision was made by the Mafube Business Forum to privately repair the potholes. Daily Maverick / Shiraaz Mohamed

The Mafube Business Forum takes on the Mafube Local Municipality.

First published by the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper

Garbage lines a muddy dirt road on the outskirts of Frankfort, Free State, leading to an old quarry, the town’s dumping site. A bakkie stops at the foot of the trash-covered hill to the quarry and offloads bags of refuse by the road. Another bakkie follows, then another.

The quarry floods when it rains and water trickles through the trash towards the Wilge River, a tributary of the Vaal River.

Rubbish lays alongside the banks of a stream that runs into the Wilge River. The rubbish comes from the Namahadi Township outside Frankfort because of the lack of refuse collections. Daily Maverick / Shiraaz Mohamed

Frankfort is one of four towns in the Mafube Local Municipality, along with Cornelia, Villiers and Tweeling, where many residents are withholding payments for rates and services until the municipality gives them a say in its financial and service delivery plans, a move they believe could provide a new model of governance for the country’s many dysfunctional rural towns.

Residents across Mafube say refuse has not been collected in years. People dispose of it themselves at various unmanaged sites or pay someone to do it for them.

The quality of drinking water is a consistent problem and water provision is interrupted multiple times a week. In some areas in the Namahadi and Qalabotjha Townships residents have been waiting for piped water for about 10 years.

A woman in the Namahadi Township outside Frankfort carries buckets of water to conduct her chores. Residents complain that they have not had running water for 10 years and have to rely on water provided to them by JoJo tanks. Daily Maverick / Shiraaz Mohamed

“It’s total damage control,” says DA councillor Marchand du Plessis. “It’s just chaos on the basic things.”

Revenue collection has plummeted in recent years to as low as 16% of total billing and much of Mafube’s assets have, at one point or another, been attached by the Sheriff of the Court to pay creditors.

Mafube had not submitted its financial statements for the Auditor-General’s (AG) last municipal audit report and the AG noted that the provincial government’s decision to place Mafube under administration in 2017 “did not yield any results”.

Not a single municipality in the Free State received a clean audit from the AG in 2018-19 and Mafube has been described as one of the worst local authorities in the province.

Jacques Jansen van Vuuren from the Mafube Business Forum (MBF) points to one of Frankfort’s ubiquitous potholes and apologises, “Sorry about the ditch.”

Private contractors have undertaken to repair potholes in Frankfort town with the assistance of the Mafube Business Forum and resources donated by residents. The forum claims that the municipality has allowed the roads to deteriorate over the years. Daily Maverick / Shiraaz Mohamed

The MBF was created after former DA councillor Hans Pretorius came up with the idea for farmers in the area who were frustrated with the lack of service delivery to collect their own revenue and decide how it would be spent. In 2019, agricultural union leader Jannie Schabort bought into the plan and helped convince fellow farmers.

Soon, almost all the farmers in the area had stopped paying rates to the municipality. When the farmers realised their rates only accounted for about 10% of the municipality’s annual revenue from residents, they started convincing other businesses to follow.

Farmers now pay the MBF R1.50 per hectare of land per month. The money is used to fund the administration of the MBF. The various agricultural unions involved then decide how to spend what’s left. So far, they’ve focused on installing security cameras in farming areas and upgrading roads.

Essentially, the MBF has established a parallel government while it continues to try to force the municipality to act on its demands.

“Historically, we can prove the reason that people don’t pay is because of lack of services,” said Van Vuuren when asked whether the withholding of payments had led to the municipality’s financial troubles.

Jacques Jansen van Vuuren liaison officer for the Mafube Business Forum standing with newspaper clippings that highlighted all the issues faced with the municipality. Daily Maverick / Shiraaz Mohamed

The MBF wants to pressure the municipality to literally give it seats at the table. There’s a long history in Mafube of community groups, unions, companies and business forums declaring official disputes, taking the municipality to court and staging protests, but Mafube’s decline has continued unabated.

In 2017, some of the groups that would eventually form the MBF started interacting with the national Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) and National Treasury after the municipality had failed to adhere to a court order to prevent sewage spillage and an administrator had been appointed by the Free State government to run Mafube.

In late 2019, the MBF, in consultation with Cogta, National Treasury and the municipality, drafted a stakeholders’ compact that proposed new options to collect revenue for services and establish a ring-fenced account for that revenue to be used on service delivery.

MBF members are careful to state that they only want oversight of what residents pay and how that money is used, not grants from provincial and national government.

The draft agreement proposed MBF members sit on a municipal committee that would oversee how rates and services revenue would be spent and that the municipality write off past debt for all account holders so they would start with a clean slate.

A rubbish collector walks through a dumpsite in Frankfort. The municipality applied to have the dumpsite extended but their application was denied by the Department of Environmental Affairs. An appeal was made which prompted an online petition because of contamination and health risks that the dumpsite poses which is situated alongside the Wilge River. Daily Maverick / Shiraaz Mohamed

“We all agreed we would sign off on this wonderful document, which would be like a first in the country that would set up all municipalities in future to be a perfect example of co-operation between business and local government,” said Van Vuuren.

Stakeholders were due to sign the agreement in January 2020, but Van Vuuren said the municipality and Cogta representative, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, backed off without explanation.

The MBF has since decided to take the legal route. It is represented by law firm Hurter Spies and its legal bid is funded by AfriForum. It wrote to Cogta Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma in November 2020 demanding she dissolve the local council and appoint officials to intervene at the struggling municipality, failing which it would go to court.

Dlamini Zuma’s office has acknowledged receipt of the letter, but has another week to respond before the MBF files court papers.

Schabort said he believes the MBF has a strong case and that the government might settle before it goes to court – “Then we’re going to change the whole South Africa.”

The MBF believes it can create a precedent for the participation of community forums in local government that could lead to increased oversight and combat corruption.

MBF members said if they were able to have oversight of the municipality’s finances, they would prioritise delivering clean drinking water to the townships and upgrading gravel roads.

While it’s clear that there’s little accountability in the local government, it’s unclear exactly how the MBF might be held accountable if it takes seats on municipal committees.

The Mafube Municipality was unable to respond to questions before our deadline, saying acting municipal manager Kadimo Masekoane did not work at the municipality when the proposed stakeholder compact fell through and that the administrator, Moses Moremi, was currently on leave.

Moremi is linked to the Estina Dairy scandal while he was municipal manager at Phumelela Municipality. Mafube is also home to Free State Premier Sisi Ntombela and her husband, former Mafube mayor Madala Ntombela.

The municipality building in Frankfort town. The municipality has been accused of zero service delivery, lack of communication and no financial control. Daily Maverick / Shiraaz Mohamed

Rumours and accusations of corruption are rife.

Local activists claimed municipal officials were reluctant to work with outsiders willing to help, accusing them of wanting to take power.

“At the end of the day, we’re just talking about the services they must provide. They’ve failed,” said Tsephiso Mofokeng, from Qalabotjha, Villiers.

Mofokeng, who hopes to stand as an independent in the 2021 local government elections, was standing next to a water tank in Qalabotjha’s Extension 8.

It was installed as part of the Department of Water and Sanitation’s efforts to provide water during the Covid-19 lockdown, but months went by after it was installed before it was eventually refilled, leading residents to revert to collecting water from other areas in the township.

Petrus Mazibuko, another local activist who volunteered and solicited donations to clean up a dumping site in Villiers after a service provider had failed to do the job, said the municipality had failed to fulfil its duties yet is sceptical of anyone who tries to help address the gaping absence of services.

“Our organisation, particularly in Villiers, it’s not just a bunch of white guys that are pissed off with the government,” claimed Van Vuuren.

The ANC won 75% of the vote in Mafube in the 2016 elections, a clear mandate to govern, but the MBF says it has been forced to try to intervene owing to the breakdown in accountability mechanisms meant to hold officials accountable. It argues the Municipal Structures Act allows for community participation in municipalities.

“We don’t want to govern. They can do whatever they like. All that we want is to have our towns be safe, [they] must be clean and there must be good services. All we had in mind was just development, job creation, etc,” said Van Vuuren.

“We just want a proper municipality within the law, run accordingly,” said Schabort.

One reason often cited for the collapse of the stakeholder compact was the involvement of the company Rural Maintenance. Almost 10 years ago, the municipality, which was not maintaining energy infrastructure nor paying Eskom, outsourced the provision of electricity to Rural.

While the municipality allegedly fails to send out any invoices for rates and services, Rural has been able to collect fees from residents.

The MBF proposed getting Rural to help collect municipal revenue for services such as refuse removal and water either through adding a fee on electricity costs or using its billing system to charge consumers for services.

Rural director Chris Bosch said the company was willing to help free of charge, at least initially, to improve the municipality’s finances, which would indirectly benefit Rural by helping develop the community.

“There’s no decision that’s made there that’s not in their best interest,” said Bosch, citing multiple offers from Rural to assist the municipality.

“It’s about them losing control and the councillors losing control.”

The majority of Mafube’s council is said to now oppose the electricity deal with Rural, as the municipality no longer has access to income from electricity invoices. When the council collected that revenue, it didn’t pay to Eskom, meaning its budget was inflated, at least before Eskom went to court to demand payments.

Moeketsi Mokoena, 35, from Qalabotjha suggested there might be opposition to Rural collecting revenue for the municipality. He complained that the company’s electricity charges were too expensive for many residents in an area where jobs are scarce and people are already struggling to make ends meet.

Thato Lephething lights a hand-rolled cigarette inside his shack in Qalabotjha Township, Villiers. Lephething says their biggest struggle is that of the lack of electricity and toilets. He has to walk to a nearby field that he uses as a toilet. Daily Maverick / Shiraaz Mohamed

Bosch agreed that electricity is expensive, but said Rural had consistently applied lower tariff increases than allowed by the National Energy Regulator of SA.

“I would say Mafube is like many rural municipalities,” said the DA’s Du Plessis shortly before he visited an area in Namahadi where residents have to queue with buckets at a tank for water to cook, bathe and flush the toilets installed in their RDP homes that didn’t come with running water.

Many local governments in rural areas are in a state of crisis and business forums in a number of areas, such as nearby Maluti-a-Phofung, have attempted to intervene.

The MBF’s revolt in Mafube and attempt to influence a democratically elected structure’s decisions raises questions about money, power, accountability and how a government should deliver services so residents can live a dignified life and get the services they believe they deserve.

As long as local governments are allowed to continue to fail, such movements are likely to proliferate. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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