Durban decay – how crime and corruption are turning a world-class city into a crumbling nightmare

Durban decay – how crime and corruption are turning a world-class city into a crumbling nightmare
With drains blocked, stagnant water makes life difficult for people on Lancers Road. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Newly introduced water rations are the tip of the iceberg for hard-pressed residents of eThekwini. Crime and grime are fast destroying Durban’s once-vibrant and prosperous inner city tourism hub. In this first part of a series on eThekwini we delve into the rot, and speak to the brave souls still trying to eke out a living in the city.

On Monday, 20 May 2022 the eThekwini Municipality started rationing water for the first time. For the next 12 to 14 months, residents, health and educational facilities, businesses and manufacturers in the city will only have access to water during some parts of the day, in rotation.      

The City blames the extreme measures on the recent floods which, it says, laid waste to water infrastructure. But for many Durbanites, the water cuts are further proof that the City is becoming a failed city – something they have seen coming for years.

Two senior city officials, who spoke to Daily Maverick on condition of anonymity, claimed that rampant and brazen corruption, mismanagement, nepotism, cadre deployment and a failure to separate ANC party politics and the city administration have combined to bring the city to its knees.

These officials said while some councillors and municipal officials make headlines by translating the City’s R54-billion budget into money bags for prominent politicians and other elites, very few municipal workers do the work for which they are paid.

Nowhere is this decay more prominent, or in your face, than in the Durban city centre.

The crime statistics from the Durban Central police station speak volumes: it took first place among the top 30 police stations across the country for the 17 most community crimes, which grew by 8,2% from 1,816 in July to September 2020/21, to 1,965 from July to September 2021/22.

It also tops the list in the serious crime statistics category – from 503 in July-September 2020/21 to 583 in July-September 2021/22.

Durban decay

This run-down building on University Road in Durban is now called Marikana and is occupied by vagrants. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

It was second among the 30 police stations for common robbery (from 142 incidents to 153), and seventh for robbery with aggravating circumstances (184 to 232, a 26,1% rise).

For robberies at non-residential properties it claimed fourth spot (from 25 incidents to 41), and was 25th for kidnappings (seven to 14 cases). It took second place for burglaries in non-residential areas, where cases rose from 102 to 355, and fifth place in the commercial crimes category, recording an increase from 190 to 261 cases.

Regarding sexual crimes detected as a result of police action, cases rose from 135 in the previous year to 162 in 2021/22.

A crime-infested city centre

Durbanites who have worked or lived in the city for decades have vivid memories of a world-class city, where streets were clean, buildings, parks and other amenities maintained and protected, where people visited the city to shop and to socialise. Now it is a dangerous place, with robberies and muggings happening in daylight.

The city is dilapidated and run-down. Buildings are crumbling and essentials such as water, electricity and plumbing are extremely unreliable.

Most businesses have moved from the CBD into malls or shopping centres, the pavements have been taken over by traders selling second-hand clothes known as “Dubai or Dunusa”. It is not uncommon to see Metro Police officers, instead of enforcing by-laws, openly seeking bribes from foreign nationals selling goods on the street.

A city tour guide said he used to take many enthusiastic tourists to the inner city. But now there are fewer and fewer tourists who venture into the city owing to muggings and other crimes.

From a city to a ‘bush’

Chris Shezi (64) has known Durban since his youth. For the past 23 years he has been a newspaper vendor on a street corner.

“We knew this place when it was still a city, now it is a bush. Anything happens here – pickpocketing, women’s phones, bags and even their weaves taken from them in broad daylight,” Shezi said, adding that he does not believe there is anyone who will reverse the decline of the city.

A 56-year-old salesman at the only remaining gentlemen’s high-fashion store on Bertha Mkhize Street (formerly Victoria Street) agrees.

A man relieves himself against a concrete pillar close to the Durban Fresh Produce Market in a wasteland of uncollected rubbish. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Asking not to be named for fear of retribution, he said the Metro Police used to enforce the law, ensuring that only vendors with permits traded on the streets, and that double-parked cars get tickets and others are towed away.

“Now all the police do is to come and extort bribes from foreign nationals vending illegally on the streets. Other police members would pretend as if they arrest an undocumented foreign national, drive around the city, take a bribe from him and release him,” he said.

“The other day I saw two police officers extorting a bribe from a man who is eking out a living by fixing a phone. They said they are thirsty and he must make something for them. I intervened and asked them how they can demand a bribe from a man who is struggling to make a living while they get a healthy salary from the government. They left, with their tails hidden behind their legs.”

Ahmed Hoosen (57) is one of the few older business people still in the city, where he has been a tobacconist for decades in a busy section. He said very few crime cases are reported to the police because they do nothing.

“Businesses that have been in the city for generations have decided to close shop and move away. This is because their customers cannot come to the city because of high levels of crime. Also, because they cannot compete with the informal business on the pavement. Look, I am selling cigarettes in my shop and I pay rent and rates; outside my shop is the hawker who is also selling cigarettes without paying for rent or rates,” he said.

Thabani Khathi points to where he was shot while on patrol on Dr Goonam Street in the Durban city centre. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Hoosen added that businesses in his part of town have been targeted by armed robbers and have resorted to hiring plain-clothed security guards who patrol the streets, carrying walkie-talkies and alerting one another when they see crime syndicate members approaching.

“In fact… if the current trends continue, Durban will be completely finished. The buildings [will] be run-down and hijacked by crime syndicates, the shops will be closed and homeless will be living in them.

“Without these guys,” he says of the security guards, “the Durban city centre would have been on its knees by now.”

Each shop or business pays about R1,000 a month, and the hawkers R250, for the patrols.

Snakes and human heads 

Bheki Mokoena heads a group of 30 plain-clothed security guards who guard or protect businesses and customers on Dr Goonam Street (formerly Prince Edward), Dr Yusuf Dadoo Street (Broad Street) and Bertha Mkhize Street (Victoria Street).

They have been doing this for more than a decade.

“During this time we’ve come to know all kinds of criminals operating in the city of Durban. They range from armed robbers syndicate, the card scammers, down to pickpockets who target women and defenceless men and children, taking away their wallets, phones, weaves, etc,” he said.

Rubbish on King Dinuzulu Street that has not been picked up by the eThekwini Municipality on 22 June 2022. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Chris Shezi (64) has sold newspapers on Bertha Mkhize Street for 28 years. ‘We knew this place when it was still a city, now it is a bush,’ he said. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Syndicates had even started using snakes to con people, convincing them to put their money in envelopes, saying the “magic” reptiles would multiply the cash hundredfold when they opened them at home. It is a crime to carry a snake in public, but he said officers look the other way for R50.

“The police don’t work here, we are actually doing the police work. They only take bribes. If we had the same authority that the Metro and SAPS officers have, we would have ended crime in the whole city of Durban.” Mokoena said.

They had foiled thousands of armed robberies and many ATM card scams, and caught pickpocketing tsotsis.

Mokoena recalled how, in August 2017, they were alerted by a traditional healer working in the city that he had received a call from a man who said he was coming to sell him a man’s head.

“We waited at a strategic area, at the corner of Cross and Short streets. A 24-year-old man walked up and approached the traditional healer. We then surrounded the man and opened the back and, woola, there was a human head. We then called the police and they informed the media and paraded themselves as if they were the ones who had discovered the head.”

From left: Thabani Khathi, Bheki Mokoena and Muzi Magubane guard shops in the Durban city centre. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

The man in question, Siyabonga Jojisa, was arrested and charged with murder. He pleaded guilty, saying he wanted to pay a loan shark and decided to kill and sever the head of his victim, Thembinkosi Nzimakwe, and sell it to a traditional healer for R20,000. In May 2021 – after a long trial in the Durban High Court – Jojisa was sentenced by Judge Phillip Nkosi to life imprisonment.

However, preventing violence in the city is a dangerous game that comes at a price, as 37-year-old Thobani Khathi, one of the men under Mokoena’s command, can attest.

In November 2018 he received a message on his walkie-talkie that he must catch a criminal who was running towards him.

Bheki Mokoena says they are determined to fight crime in Durban’s CBD. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

“They didn’t tell me it was an armed robbery incident where a shop was targeted by several armed robbers. I stopped the criminal and subdued him. But one of his accomplices came by and shot me in the face,” he said.

The bullet pierced his right cheek and became wedged in the back of his head, narrowly missing his brain. He spent more than two weeks in hospital, but doctors decided to leave the bullet there “because it is not in a dangerous area and if they take it out other organs would be affected”. 

Headaches are a frequent reminder of the incident, but Khathi has vowed to continue his street patrols.

The rot in the municipality

The eThekwini Municipality has just more than 28,000 permanent employees and thousands more workers on its payroll as casuals. It also hires thousands of contractors for some of its services.

Disgruntled officials, who spoke to Daily Maverick on condition of anonymity, said the “rot” in the municipality had become too deep and endemic. 

They said most of the billions in the annual budget (the 2022/23 budget is R54-billion) is distributed among leading comrades and associated businesses, resulting in the City failing to fund some of its core functions and provide services.

A pile of rubbish that has not been collected by municipal workers from Brook Street in the Durban city centre on 22 June 2022. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Water disruptions are the tip of the iceberg, they say, and very soon the City would not be able to pay salaries or pay for other services.

One official, who has worked in the municipality for more than 30 years, said the problem is that “there is no clear line between politicians and administration”.

He accused the ANC administration of running it down.  “It was better during the times of (former municipal manager) Mike Sutcliffe. Then, even though politicians were trying to encroach, Mike would hold them off and protect municipal officials,” the official said, adding that it had also been better under Sutcliffe’s successor, Sbusiso Sithole.

In the Sutcliffe era from 2002 to 2011, the council took the controversial decision to hand the City’s bus fleet over to the Tansnat, a company owned by the controversial Gcaba brothers who are taxi bosses and nephews of former president Jacob Zuma. The City later paid an exorbitant price to buy back the fleet, in what was seen by opposition parties as the enrichment of connected elites at taxpayers’ expense. It was also on Sutcliffe’s watch that tenders worth multibillion-rands were awarded controversially to a group of connected elites, including the colourful Shauwn Mkhize, who raked in millions building RDP houses in the city.

Despite these pitfalls, officials said it was far better then than it is now.

Sithole was suspended and unceremoniously removed by the administration of controversial former mayor Zandile Gumede in December 2016.

According to the officials, Sithole was “hounded out of the municipality because he was not willing to put his signature to dodgy tender deals”.

“The ANC politicians then brought in (former city manager) Sipho Nzuza because he had an auditing background and his politician bosses could be able to steal and he (Nzuza) would be able to hide their loot in the books so that the Auditor-General’s office could be sidestepped.

Hawkers in front of formal shops in the Durban CBD. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

“Now it is not uncommon for us to get a call from councillors instructing us to do this and that, something for which they have neither expertise nor experience. The human resources officials receive calls from, say, the mayor’s office instructing him or her to stop or institute a disciplinary process against a municipality employee, or to hire this or that person without any interview or advertisement,” the official said.

‘Infrastructure damaged long before floods’

Another official, who has served for more than 20 years, said: “It is a lie that the water infrastructure was damaged by the floods. The floods damaged bridges and roads and the pipes along these. The water infrastructure was damaged long ago and finally succumbed in December last year, long before the floods.

“The City has been frustrating experienced engineers for years and they have left and emigrated to countries like Australia. In their place, unskilled comrades were hired. Not only are they mismanaging the water infrastructure, they have been doing it purposely because some of them have got companies contracted to the municipality to do the fixing. Some of them have bought luxurious or palatial homes in Ballito, living along with CEOs of companies and owners of successful businesses. You just wonder how engineers and other municipal workers would be getting money to build homes in these wealthy areas,” he said.

There are many ghost employees within the municipality, he said, people who do not report for work and only pick up salaries every month.

Both officials say the rot in the municipality will only be stopped when a new administration kicks out all corrupt comrades and starts cleaning up the municipality, including doing a skills audit and getting all employees to report for duty.

“But the biggest task would be to take action recommended in the Manase Report,” one official said.

The Manase report was tabled in 2013 and it revealed how slack internal control and the conduct of officials led to the eThekwini Municipality losing billions of rands in irregular expenditure.

Read more about the Manase Report in Daily Maverick: “Time to clean up the rot in KZN – and for the new ad hoc committee to bare its teeth

And an analysis of the rot in the Durban Metro here.

Read the report here

Two years later, a sanitised version of the report was released by the KwaZulu-Natal department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs after a threat of legal action by civil society organisations.

“This report contains the names of top KZN politicians, their family members and friends and how they had used this municipality as their own personal purses. What is contained in that report can lead to many arrests and prosecutions,” the official said.

Tourism takes a hit

Among the low-hanging fruit since the end of apartheid has been the burgeoning tourism industry, which allowed the City to rake in billions of rands until the Covid-19 pandemic and attendant travel and other restrictions brought the industry to its knees.

Rubbish and taxis on University Road. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

This industry is also highly dependent on security for tourists, sound infrastructure, and adequate and safe transport, among other things.

Bret Tungay, spokesperson for the East Coast region of the Federated Hospitality Association of South Africa said the city is losing its status as a viable local and international tourist destination.

“We are concerned about infrastructure, safety and security. We’ve got a problem and the municipality is not engaging the hospitality industry on these issues so that we can come up with solutions to these problems. The general infrastructure in the city has been waning over the years. 

“We’ve got issues with water supply in the Durban North and Umhlanga areas, the pollution on the beaches, all the staff that needs to be sorted out by the city [and] the provincial government. The tourist numbers are already down, especially in the past few months. Surely, if tourists are not coming here it means they are going somewhere else.

“In the past three years, the hospitality industry in eThekwini has been in a crisis from the Covid-19-related lockdown, the July looting and the latest floods. The number of businesses closing down, especially the restaurant side, has been increasing,” he said.  

Instability in the administration

Since the November 2021 local government elections, the eThekwini Municipality has been governed by a coalition involving the ANC, the Abantu Batho Congress (ABC) and other smaller parties. The deal ensured that ANC’s Mxolisi Kaunda retained the position of the mayor while ABC leader Philani “PG” Mavundla was installed as deputy mayor.

Another problem is that the crucial city manager’s position has been vacant since early 2021.

The previous city manager, Sipho Nzuza’s contract was terminated early that year. He had been suspended by the City following his arrest in 2018.

Nzuza is one of 22 accused, including former mayor Zandile Gumede, who have been indicted in a fraud, corruption and money laundering case involving the R320-million Durban Solid Waste tender awarded by the municipality shortly after he was employed in 2017. He, like Gumede, is out on R50,000 bail and their trial is expected to start in the Pietermaritzburg High Court on 18 July.

Mdu Nkosi, IFP chief whip in eThekwini who has served as a councillor since 2006, agreed with the officials, saying that when he started at the municipality the budget was very low (in the 2008/9 financial year the City’s budget was R5.9-billion). Now we have R54-billion but services are declining.

“If the opposition can take over, there are many people who will go to jail for the relentless theft of the municipality funds. Many of them are linked to the ANC,” he said.

Nkosi claimed that the municipality was dishing out tenders to selected, ANC-aligned families like the Gcaba brothers (bus and other tenders), and Shauwn Mkhize (housing and other tenders).

Hawkers make it difficult to get to formal shops. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

“We have seen so many irregularities in the eThekwini Municipality. We have objected to these and the ANC used its majority to block investigations. Even in the Manase Report saga we called for a full investigation, but the ANC blocked us,” he said.

“Today, the municipality is spending more in the operational budget compared to the capital budget. We have more than 28,000 workers working for the municipality, but we are very thin on the ground. This will only be corrected, and the Durban city centre be redeemed, if there is a political will to do so, and that political will not be found within the ANC.”

Nicole Graham, outgoing DA caucus leader in eThekwini, concurred. “Durban is in a bad way… and I think it has experienced a sharp decline. It really started around 2016 and 2017, but it got quite drastic in the past few months. For example, there hasn’t been sufficient maintenance of water and sanitation infrastructure for far too long. The part that is not clear is why it would take up to 14 months to fix it.

“I have been approached by many businesses who are concerned that they will not have a stable water supply. Many are considering relocating from the city because they are not getting adequate services despite paying high prices for rates and services and the infrastructure is not safe or stable,” Graham said. 

The City has not had a  permanent city manager since July 2021 when a full council voted to terminate Nzuza’s employment and pay him the remainder of his contract.      

Mlondi Mkhize, the ANC’s eThekwini regional spokesperson, said the newly elected regional leadership was concerned about the state of the City’s infrastructure, especially after the recent floods. The party’s new leadership had been briefed by leaders it had deployed to lead the municipality and the party had given these deployed cadres a new brief to speed up services and deal with the challenges with immediate effect.

Mkhize said some of the criticism levelled at the ANC was unwarranted. “The ANC in eThekwini has noted the state of eThekwini Municipality with concerns. Some of these challenges, such as electricity (Eskom) and bulk water (Umgeni Water) are beyond the City’s control. We are also concerned about the turnaround time for (the pace of) service delivery. We acknowledge that there are challenges and we think things must change and our people must get services speedily. 

“The new leadership of the ANC in eThekwini region will ensure the City moves with modern times,” he said.

Msawakhe Mayisela, spokesperson for the eThekwini Municipality, said he was not aware that some of the city’s businesses now pay for their own security to patrol the streets.

He said it is wrong to apportion all the blame for the decline and grime squarely on the shoulders of the city’s administration.

“We always have educational campaigns in this regard and the media also has a responsibility to help in educating the public as an important stakeholder in the society. It also needs to ask tough questions to members of the public as to what is it that they are doing to keep clean spaces they are trading from,” he said.  

Mayisela referred some of the water-related questions to Umgeni Water, which supplies the municipality with a bulk water system.

“The flood damage to City infrastructure was extensive and will cost in the tune of millions,” he said. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    The state of Durban is proof positive that a fish rots from the head. People should stop complaining : they get what they elect.

  • Pet Bug says:

    I couldn’t finish reading the article. I’ll try again tomorrow. What a disaster.

  • Martin Neethling says:

    KZN has produced some of SA’s most venile politicians in the democratic era, and Durban has suffered at the hands of successive corrupt administrations in ways more damaging than say Joburg. Sutcliffe was in fact a key contributor to changing the trajectory of the City, and much of today’s malaise can be placed at his door. The words spoken about commitment to clean governance and the many turnaround plans spouted by politicians are obviously and plainly meaningless. And the stakes are high, because if Durban doesn’t function, SA doesn’t, and the insurrectionists of last year know this. It’s port, and the N3 that connects it to Gauteng, are root-and-trunk for SA’ s economy. There are only two ways out of this, and KZNers being a hardy bunch, there is surely (at least theoretically), hope. One is that common sense prevails and a DA-centred coalition government emerges, or two, is that a parallel civic organisation (or several) manage to take hold of enough of the vital cogs of the City to start starts to turn things around. Gift if the Givers are an obvious choice. Afriforum could make an impact. The ‘water shedding’ now introduced will become a permanent feature unless completely different, non-ANC people get involved. As a born and bred Shark supporter who escaped up the N3 I fervently hope that it will happen.

  • Confucious Says says:

    Im glad that DM is brining the rot to the fore! We (accidentally) drove through the city centre in November 2021 and all agreed that Durban was the filthiest city in SA (and most of the other cities that we’ve been to around the world)! It is absolutely clear that the place is a wasteland of filth and decay! But, I suppose, for the ANC its an amazing success!!!

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Oh how we long for the Colonial past when we see what a real African city looks like!

  • Margaret-Anne Halse says:

    “Are turning”? Try “have turned”.

  • Lee Richardson says:

    I mean… this is what the voters get. Can’t really sympathise with democracy

  • Stephen Mullins says:

    Unfortunately, it really is that bad. From a distance, it still looks like a city. But the skyline is just the exoskeleton of what used to be a city, hollowed out by the avarice of the cadres deployed to do just that.

  • Graeme J says:

    I grew up in Durban. eThekwini Municipality is a disgrace… the place is a pigsty thanks to the ANC non-governance.

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