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Dr Beyers Naudé municipality extends time for public comment on fire sale of public property

One of the properties that have been listed for sale include the public swimming pool. (Photo: Theo Jephta)

The Eastern Cape’s Dr Beyers Naudé municipality has invited additional comment on their plans to sell public land to boost municipal coffers after lawyers intervened on behalf of communities. The deadline for comment was moved from early January to mid-March. The municipality faces a financial crisis with massive unpaid debts owing to Eskom and a looming deadline to pay R25 million in workers’ contributions to pension funds by the end of March.

The Eastern Cape’s Dr Beyers Naudé Local Municipality confirmed that it has extended the deadline for public comment on its decision to sell several pieces of public property in Graaff-Reinet, Klipplaat, Nieu-Bethesda and Aberdeen. The new deadline is 19 March.

This comes after the Service Delivery Movement, an organisation planning to contest the local government elections, asked the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in Makhanda to stop the sale – especially as many small scale farmers who rent the commonages that are now up for sale had their livelihoods threatened.

Municipal spokesperson Edwardine Abader said the sale of the properties was first advertised in December 2020.

“The intention is to alienate municipal land not utilised for service delivery purposes. The notice deadline has been further extended, and members of the public or interested parties are encouraged to comment/give input by no later than 12:00 Friday, 19 March 2021,” she said.

She added that none of the properties had yet been disposed of and current rental agreements remained in place.

The LRC had informed the municipality that it was in breach of the Municipal Systems Act by not consulting properly with the public.

The properties were first advertised on the municipality’s website on 11 December, and the time period for public comment closed on 11 January. The notice was not distributed through any other channels or platforms.

The properties that have been listed for sale include the Graaff-Reinet caravan park, golf club, public swimming pool, the town’s botanical gardens, a nature reserve in Aberdeen with a freshwater spring, a quarry and land being used by subsistence farmers.

In August last year, during a presentation to Parliament on the state of the municipality, mayor Deon de Vos said the council had R62-million in assets, no cash reserves and R218-million in liabilities. The acceptable ratio for a municipality is 2:1 with regard to assets and liabilities.

Since then its Eskom debt has ballooned to R141-million. The municipality is currently in arbitration proceedings with the power utility over this debt.

In 2016, when the municipality was created through the amalgamation of a number of smaller councils, it had inherited outstanding debt amounting to R65.3-million. These are debts owed to Eskom among other creditors. At the time there was an undertaking from the national government to pay the outstanding Eskom debt, but this never happened.

The municipality also owes R25-million in contributions to municipal workers’ pension funds that have not been paid. In December last year, after Finance Minister Tito Mboweni confirmed that it was a crime not to transfer these contributions to pension funds, the DA’s Samantha Graham-Maré opened a criminal case against the municipality.

The council has been identified by the Eastern Cape provincial government as being in “financial distress”.

“The municipality has been transparent about its financial challenges and has reported in all compliance reports of arrears due to pension funds.  The payment of arrears is a priority as it affects everyone within the institution. An internal payment arrangement is in place, with the intention to have funds up to date by 31 March 2021,” Abader said.

The assets the municipality intends to put up for sale are: Camp 39 outside the Camdeboo National Park, the local quarry, the caravan park next to the dam wall, the botanical gardens, Hardwood farm in Klipplaat, Karoo Vlakte farm in Nieu-Bethesda, the airfield, Fonteinbos outside Aberdeen, the site of a spring and a nature reserve, and a number of smaller parcels of land. DM/MC

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