24: COUNTDOWN TO CATASTROPHE
The Politics: Bickering continues in Nelson Mandela Bay as taps are set to run dry
The water supply is due to run out in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, but no one has closed the tap on political bickering. The DA has released a plan-of-sorts which they believe will deal with the water crisis while, apart from pleading with residents to save water, the ANC-led coalition government has not offered much.
With Nelson Mandela Bay set to hit an unprecedented water crisis in about a month’s time, political conflict is at an all-time high and the municipal council itself is rife with division.
Last week, when asked why the executive mayor, Eugené Johnson, did not attend the emergency meetings at the joint operations centre in Gqeberha, her spokesperson, Tango Lamani, said the centre held technical meetings that “don’t need the executive mayor”. When asked what Johnson’s three top priorities were to tackle the water crisis, he said he had no comment.
During a disorganised public meeting to discuss the water crisis, Johnson was heard asking: “How was I?” Councillors shook their heads and remarked: “We are fighting while Rome is burning.”
Earlier this week, national government had withdrawn some of their support for the metro to fight off the consequences of Day Zero after Johnson refused to respond to a letter by the Ministry.
The National Treasury responded to questions relating to the mayor’s failure to respond to the deputy minister saying the community should demand accountability from the Metro with regard to the way in which the Metro manages their affairs from a governance perspective.
“Technical assistance support of this nature from the National Treasury is provided on request from and in agreement between the Metro and the department.
“The support the National Treasury is referring to is technical assistance and not monetary. The National Treasury assembled a team of international and national technical experts to assist the Metro to navigate the water and drought crisis, similar to the technical assistance provided by the National Treasury to the City of Cape Town in 2017 and 2018.
“The National Treasury, similar to any other national and provincial institution, is required by law to provide continuous support and guidance to all municipalities, including the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro. In addition, the National Treasury has a monitoring and oversight responsibility as articulated in the Constitution,” their written answers read.
According to the 2020/21 Annual Report of the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, signed by Johnson, annual water losses remained at a high of 40.0% — 43.349 million litres of water costing R214.7-million. Eleven percent of the metro’s water was lost to theft, the inaccurate reading of water meters and technical problems, while 29% was lost to leaks.
The Democratic Alliance, which narrowly lost out on forming a coalition government after the previous local government elections, but holds roughly the same number of votes in the council as the ANC, released its water plan before the coalition government. The coalition government has not yet presented a plan — apart from vague suggestions at a public meeting.
DA spokesperson for infrastructure councillor Dries van der Westhuyzen presented the party’s plan to fight the water crisis earlier this month.
“Although the metro has already mooted that water shedding will be on the cards soon, no details have been revealed about the actual plan to deal with the unfolding disaster… speculation is rife that large parts of the metro may not be able to receive any potable water at all when the Churchill and Impofu [dams] run dry.
“The DA has written to the city manager and demanded that an urgent, up-to-date, detailed and accurate briefing be given on the metro’s state of preparedness for Day Zero. The residents of Nelson Mandela Bay have the right to know whether we are prepared for the worst possible crisis that could hit this metro,” he said.
“A letter has also been sent to the executive mayor requesting her to appoint an acting member of the mayoral committee (MMC) to take charge of this committee that is responsible for calling meetings of the Infrastructure and Engineering portfolio committee. The present MMC is a member of the Northern Alliance and the uncertainty of his position in council is severely affecting the functioning of this critical portfolio,” he said.
Other strategies that form part of the DA’s plan to address the water crisis were:
- Repairing leaks as a first priority;
- Creating a law squad to stop water theft and tampering with water meters; and
- The closing of schools during periods of no activity. Schools have been identified as a major source of water losses, especially during weekends.
Van der Westhuizen said the DA would also suggest investigating additional capacity from the Nooitgedacht Water Scheme, fast-tracking the construction of boreholes that are close to the dams and do not require water treatment facilities and for the national government to construct a desalination plant.
The Nelson Mandela Bay Council’s obsession with desalination was highlighted in a water report by Corruption Watch published in March 2020. The report stated that “efforts to promote an inappropriate project” (desalination), instead of the completion of the Nooitgedacht scheme, became apparent in Nelson Mandela Bay in 2020.
The report says: “In 2006, the city had published a 20-year water plan which stated that the Nooitgedacht scheme would be needed by 2015. So why in 2017 was its water still not reaching the city? Other agendas were in play. Around 2005, a group of local entrepreneurs and leading municipal officials decided to promote the construction of a desalination plant. They were not deterred by the extremely high cost of water from this proposal, many times more than that of readily available Orange River water.
“But the desalination project required either a bankable undertaking from the municipality to buy the water or a central government subsidy. The municipality’s financial track record was too weak to convince lenders, while efforts to obtain financial guarantees or emergency drought funding failed to persuade a sceptical national government. Local and national authorities finally decided to proceed with the Nooitgedacht scheme, but, after years of delay, funds still had to be found. As a result, when the region suffered yet another drought, it had to introduce extreme water restrictions.
“The city’s municipality was notorious for corruption. The book How to Steal a City describes how no project would advance in Nelson Mandela Bay unless someone in the leadership benefited. The repeated water restrictions that the city suffered saw industries close for lack of water and further jobs lost in agriculture. By 2016, a black market had emerged in water stolen from swimming pools by the tanker load. In September 2019, with the critical Nooitgedacht infrastructure still not in place and drought threatening the region once again, organised business warned of a ‘jobs bloodbath’. This is the cost of corruption which blocks projects from which municipal leadership cannot benefit and it highlights the need to prevent unethical local leadership from capturing control of institutions.”
The metro is also suffering a dearth of leadership during the drought crisis.
The Mayco member for water and infrastructure, Stag Mitchell of the Northern Alliance, hangs on to his position courtesy of a court interdict, but ANC mayor Johnson no longer seems to recognise him as an MMC. Mitchell wasn’t at a recent public meeting called to inform residents of the water emergency. The Gqeberha High Court has reserved judgment in the Northern Alliance’s case.
Mitchell did not respond to a request for an interview.
Johnson herself did not attend the joint operations committee meeting last week. Her only recent public appearance was at a disorganised and disjointed virtual public meeting where she told “beloved residents” that “the blame game must stop”.
For years there have been political fights in the highly unstable Nelson Mandela Bay Metro for the coveted portfolio of mayoral committee member for water and infrastructure, but despite high-profile politicians being awarded the position, few committee meetings ever took place.
Among other people, the position was occupied by the controversial ANC politician Andile Lungisa, the late Mongameli Bobani (United Democratic Movement) who succumbed to Covid-19, and now Mitchell, who was given the position during negotiations that allowed the ANC to seize control of the city.
The water and infrastructure department’s executive director, Walter Shaidi, received a settlement and left the metro after being on special leave since February 2021. Shaidi is one of nine people accused of colluding in massive tender corruption involving about R175-million — the case relates to the city’s integrated transport system, not to water projects.
Shaidi appeared in court in November 2021 on charges of fraud, money laundering and corruption, with former deputy mayor Chippa Ngcolomba and Zandisile Qupe, Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane’s adviser and former ANC Nelson Mandela Bay regional secretary.
Shaidi’s legal team has said he would plead not guilty.
His post must still be advertised. DM/MC