KZN political fallout continues while scandals dog flood relief efforts
The KwaZulu-Natal government and eThekwini Municipality — at the forefront of flood relief efforts in the battered province — have chosen to double down in the wake of allegations of theft and abuses of power rather than issue assurances that they will allow independent investigations into these claims.
The ANC-controlled metro and province have found themselves embroiled in two major scandals, just a week into the massive clean-up operations taking place across KZN following devastating floods and mudslides that claimed the lives of 435 residents (revised down by authorities on Thursday) and left scores unaccounted for.
One scandal involves a municipal water tanker being sent directly to Premier Sihle Zikalala’s private La Mercy home while his neighbours were queuing for water. The other involves eThekwini employees removing privately donated items at Virginia Airport that were meant for the use of search and rescue teams and emergency personnel.
Zikalala has since “apologised” to the residents of his Durban suburb. However, his office initially claimed that the water tanker video clip had been “digitally manipulated”.
eThekwini Municipality — embroiled in countless graft scandals over the years — has simply written off the attempted removal by council workers of relief packages as “fake news”.
In a discussion with Daily Maverick, a senior employee in the office of the provincial premier claimed that non-government organisations assisting flood-hit communities in KwaZulu-Natal are part of a corrupt enterprise, aided and abetted by the media in an effort to sully the efforts of government.
“Who says there is going to be looting? You can’t generalise,” KwaZulu-Natal’s government spokesperson, Lennox Mabaso, said when asked what measures Premier Zikalala would put in place to ensure donations for flood victims did not end up in the pockets of unscrupulous ANC cadres, as happened during the pandemic.
“In government, you know about Covid corruption because… there are investigating bodies. In NGOs, there is a lot of corruption. We have seen NGOs that have received, from the private sector, millions of money [sic] and the only thing they could provide to the citizens is a five [kilogram bag] of sugar [and] a Woolworths bag full of small items.”
Mabaso would not provide Daily Maverick with the names of the allegedly corrupt NGOs or any evidence to support his claims, saying instead that a visit to community halls housing the displaced would reveal everything. He said journalists were “cowards” who did not bother to investigate NGOs or corporations, but were happy to excessively scrutinise government.
“This whole call to channel money to NGOs [instead of government] is a corruption call,” said Mabaso. Those who committed corruption in government were found out because there were systems in place, he said, but “in the NGO set… we do not even know what they did with their money. In some areas, you hear that there is so much money channelled, but what happens is that three NGOs go to one place. You go to that place, and there is not even [a bag of food]. Even political parties have provided better facilities.
“Nobody makes NGOs account.”
ANC’s corrupt image
His words are likely to be indicative of the thinking within the ANC leadership in KwaZulu-Natal as the party battles an image of being saturated in corruption, its deployees incapable of competently performing most tasks.
The Zikalala administration, President Cyril Ramaphosa and Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma have all blamed climate change for the disaster. While there is ample evidence for this, it is also well documented that eThekwini in particular underspends on infrastructure maintenance and has a record of using sub-par contractors for maintenance to appease its so-called RET support base.
Daily Maverick has previously reported that eThekwini metro has 300 water leaks a day. Prior to the flooding, it embarked on a sewer pipe replacement programme at an estimated cost of R1-billion.
Sewerage and water infrastructure were severely damaged by the flooding, leading to lengthy water cuts in a multitude of suburbs. The cost to the city’s GDP from the flooding, according to Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda, was estimated on 14 April to be R737-million.
The trust deficit between South African citizens and the ANC-led government is not a secret. What is alarming is how big this deficit has grown in the wake of the floods.
People have mostly scoffed at the province’s department of cooperative governance and its calls to donate flood relief to government coffers. Instead, cash and aid — amounts running into many millions — are mostly going the way of NGOs such as Gift of the Givers and others.
Mabaso’s comments slamming NGOs had been made in his personal capacity, he said after a lengthy on-the-record discussion with Daily Maverick.
The official stance on halting flood-related corruption was that government had transparent processes and that Treasury would be conducting pre-audits on all transactions.
“There are also accountability bodies such as the Auditor-General, Hawks, Human Rights Commission, Public Protector, oversight, parliamentary and legislature committees, government internal corruption-fighting units and whistle-blowers.
“The Executive of the Province also exercises strong oversight. As the premier indicated, there will be transparency, including, if necessary, publishing all that was done, by who and how much was the cost per item.
“We will ensure that all emergency procurement of supplies and services is fair, transparent, competitive and cost-effective.
“Government has tightened controls and mechanisms against improper conduct in the procurement of goods and services during this state of disaster.
“The Auditor-General’s office will work closely with departments to keep a close eye on the utilisation of the resources. The Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation will monitor both the financial and the non-financial performance of the interventions.
“The National Prosecuting Authority, SA Revenue Service and the Hawks and Special Investigating Unit have been strengthened to investigate and prosecute the crime of corruption,” said Mabaso.
The “official” stance offered by Mabaso rings hollow for residents like Vanessa Knight. A video clip of Knight berating an eThekwini municipal official went viral this week after she accused some of the metro’s employees of stealing donations intended for disaster relief teams operating out of Virginia Airport.
“I am so over this whole incident,” Knight told Daily Maverick. “I know the modus operandi of eThekwini [employees]… we have had it before, during the July riots.”
According to Knight, who is chairperson of the Ward 36 residents’ association, there was no reason for any eThekwini employee to come to the airport and load up donations made by private citizens and businesses specifically meant for the rescue teams.
The only other donations being brought to the airport were for the K9 rescue dogs, she said, and eThekwini municipality had not named Virginia Airport as a donations drop-off point.
When she tried to stop the eThekwini employees from loading the goods, “they literally laughed at me”.
“They said that if I want it back, I would have to go to their offices,” said Knight. She claimed the employees refused to identify themselves or tell her in which municipal department they worked.
Knight said volunteers helping with the relief effort were very upset to see a city employee “dig into” one of the care packages, take out a breakfast bar and eat it.
The city contacted Knight on the day of the incident and asked that the parties “sit and talk”, she said.
“I said, ‘fine, I will see you tomorrow’, which is why I didn’t do any interviews or anything [about the incident]. I just ignored all of the phone calls [from the media] because I thought we were going to meet the next day. And in that time, they released a statement.”
In that statement, released on 18 April, eThekwini confirmed that the female driver was employed in its community participation unit and was assigned to deliver donations to a township.
“We can also confirm reports that some residents are insisting that their donated goods be delivered to areas of their choice, and typically the areas they dictate are not the most impacted.
“It is unfortunate that the employee in question has had her reputation tarnished in this manner. We call upon the public to desist from creating and spreading fake news,” said the municipality.
Following the statement, the municipality never got back to Knight and the meeting never took place, she said.
‘Legitimate’ donation collection
eThekwini’s spokesperson, Msawakhe Mayisela, told Daily Maverick that Virginia Airport was indeed being used as a drop-off point for donations. The city’s community participation unit had been asked to collect donations on behalf of its disaster management unit, he said.
Mayisela said Knight claimed “some” of the municipality’s employees had eaten something out of one of the parcels, but appeared not to have video evidence of this.
“As the city, we are now helping [the female employee who was accused of being a thief] to get counselling, and then she will have to decide what is going to be her next course of action… whether to sue [Knight] or not, because there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that she was stealing.
“All that we see in the video clip is someone driving a municipal vehicle that is laden with some stuff at the back…”
Mayisela said the city would not be investigating the incident as there was “nothing to investigate because the [employee] was just there performing her duties”.
As for “Tankergate”, Premier Zikalala and the La Mercy Ratepayers’ Association released a joint statement on Thursday evening, saying: “Both parties have agreed to move forward in the spirit of unity and in the greater interests of the community.”
Tankergate had arisen out of “miscommunication”, according to the statement, and the association had, following deliberations, “apologised to the premier regarding the incident”.
The association also welcomed Zikalala’s announcement, made earlier in the day, that he had written to the national government to request the waiving of toll fees “on major transport routes, including the N2 economic corridor, to cushion the financial burden of citizens”.
It was agreed to “coordinate better in the interests of the community”, according to the joint statement. It was also agreed that the councillor in the area “is the one who should consistently be held accountable for the current issues experienced by the residents and who has been conspicuously absent in dealing with community frustrations”.
That councillor is the Democratic Alliance’s Geoff Pullen. He told Daily Maverick on Thursday that he was “harassed”.
“Everybody wants answers and we can’t get them from the officials. We are struggling to get water tankers out here… not only in La Mercy. We get one or two a day for the whole ward.”
Asked about Tankergate, Pullen said: “I don’t want to talk about that. Look, when you are a top dog, all of these things step into action and [people] say ‘right, we must protect him’,” he said, referring to Zikalala.
He had “kept out of” the tanker issue, said Pullen, “but I obviously saw it on our [community group social media postings]. There were also things said about me”.
At a special hybrid sitting of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature in Pietermaritzburg on Wednesday, the schism between the ANC and the opposition benches reignited.
The IFP said the government had a “trust deficit”. The DA said Zikalala should “step aside”. And the EFF said the ANC was personally responsible for the flood-related deaths in the province.
But other facts also emerged. More than 1,200 road infrastructure sites needed repairing or rebuilding following the disaster, and the province — which banks on Easter as a revenue driver — saw hotel occupancy drop to below 50%.
The ANC MECs rallied around Zikalala, who admitted on SAfm that morning that a tanker had been diverted to his home. He apologised on air and said it would not happen again.
Velenkosini Hlabisa, the leader of the IFP — the official opposition in the province — and leader of the party’s legislative caucus, said platitudes relating to recovery were overshadowed by the “trust deficit in government”.
“Our province is still recovering from the devastation of the pandemic and the shattering effects of the July 2021 civil unrest. Our recovery efforts have now to deal with the effects of the triple disasters happening within a space of just two years in succession,” said Hlabisa.
“The hard reality is that the announcement of the billions of rands to be injected into KZN as relief measures, instead of being received with gratitude, was received by many people with greater cynicism, as many people believe that this money will be stolen by those in power, together with their friends.”
KZN DA leader, Francois Rodgers, mocked the ANC’s recent election of former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede, who is facing a multitude of corruption charges, as the leader of the party’s eThekwini region. This was a sign of the ANC not knowing “who is actually running the ship”.
Rodgers also accused the government of failing to create any type of central coordination to deal with the disaster, and of a lack of policing or any noticeable signage for motorists driving on roads that had been compromised by flooding or mudslides. He claimed residents were forced to do this themselves.
He said Zikalala should be investigated over the water tanker debacle.
The EFF, with the Minority Front, independently proposed the need for a multiparty committee to oversee the distribution of disaster relief funds. DM