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CITY IN REVOLT

Fuming walkout – eThekwini rates boycott rolls on after disastrous meeting with mayor

Fuming walkout – eThekwini rates boycott rolls on after disastrous meeting with mayor
Residents of Richmond Farm carry buckets of water to their homes. Water supply to Richmond Farm and other areas of Durban has been inconsistent for years. Some communities have water outages for days and rely on occasional water tankers. (Photo: Mandla Langa)

eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda eventually held a meeting with angry members of the Westville Ratepayers Association. But they were unimpressed and given the state the city is in, that is no surprise.

Early last week, eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda’s office would not comment on the city’s dispute with the Westville Ratepayers Association (WRA). Three days later, he started his “city-wide engagement” tour in the suburb.

Kaunda was persuaded to do what any CEO would do in the face of a consumer revolt: he gingerly stepped into the store and addressed his very unhappy customers.

It wasn’t fun and you could forgive Kaunda for just wanting to run away. But the growing rates boycott isn’t going away and an attempt to ignore the problem failed.

In June, Kaunda and fellow ANC councillors had snubbed their ruling party comrade Bongiwe Sithole-Moloi, the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for cooperative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta), when she wanted to talk about bringing in a team of specialists to help run eThekwini.

But they obviously thought better of telling the WRA to get lost after about 1,000 members decided to withhold rates from 1 July because they don’t trust the city to spend their money unsupervised.

Westville eThekwini

Asad Gaffar and fellow Westville Ratepayers Association members address the media. (Photo: Greg Arde)

Important numbers

There are a few key figures in the city’s R65.5-billion budget that lie at the heart of the wider service delivery dramas resulting in Kaunda’s awkward meeting on 10 August.

Parastatal Umgeni Water set its annual increase for bulk water supply to eThekwini at 5% this year. Instead of a modest margin on top of that to cover the cost of its reticulation of Umgeni’s water to residents, the municipality is charging ratepayers a 14.9% increase. The difference equates to R800-million and fears are the money will be squandered.

There’s ample evidence of the city’s parlous finances. The Auditor-General highlighted a R1.5-billion loss in irregular expenditure in the previous financial year.

Read more in Daily Maverick: eThekwini municipality severely censured in latest Auditor-General report

Outstanding payments to eThekwini debtors equalled R25-billion in June, an almost 30% increase over the previous  year. R9-billion had been outstanding in April.

There’s a crunch coming, which is why Asad Gaffar from the WRA has been joined by so many members in a city tax boycott. The rates money withheld since 1 July – R250,000 – has been put in a trust account since the city’s new tariffs for water, rates and electricity were implemented.

Let’s not beat about the bush. How are we going to move forward?

eThekwini had proposed a 21.9% electricity increase, but electricity regulator Nersa reduced that to 15.1%, the same increase that Eskom charged the city. Property rates were increased 8.9%; sanitation rates went up 11.9%.

The R250,000 is small potatoes, but momentum is growing around the refusal of ratepayers to accept the city’s (mis)handling of the budget. Gaffar says there will be no payment for services until citizens have a direct say in how the money is spent. The WRA declared a dispute with the city on 30 June and he doesn’t expect a happy ending.

The meeting with Kaunda ended with Gaffar leading a walkout of about 150 ratepayers representing 25 associations. Engagement between Gaffar, the mayor and council speaker Thabani Nyawose was polite but tense. Gaffar interrupted the mayor’s speech, saying ratepayers had heard it all before. “Let’s not beat about the bush. How are we going to move forward?” he asked.

At first, Nyawose welcomed Gaffar’s “powerful, frank and direct” presentation. Then he told him he wouldn’t be “intimidated and bullied” by him. When Nyawose called the meeting to an end, a livid Gaffar took to the floor and slammed the city.

He got a standing ovation from the crowd. “This is exactly what we are complaining about. You fail to recognise us,” he said, before turning tail and leading the walkout. An embarrassed Nyawose and Kaunda were left at the podium as the hall emptied.

Gaffar told Daily Maverick the issue would probably end up in court. “What we are doing is well within the law, but it will be up to a court to decide what is justified and what is not,” he said, adding that if the city established a joint board to oversee its finances, the boycott would be suspended.

There will be civil unrest without water. Already, contractors with water tankers are supposed to help residents, but they are fleecing us.

Ratepayers have consistently complained about the city’s failure to negotiate the budget. But Gaffar said they were given an audience with Sandile Mnguni, the city’s chief financial officer, in early June. He assured them systems would be put in place to meet the city’s infrastructural challenges and fix financial misappropriation.

“And then we saw a report on eNCA about the city giving all that money to former mayor Zandile Gumede’s co-accused. It was like they were giving us the middle finger.”

Water crisis

The real emergency, Gaffar said, is water infrastructure. The Auditor-General said water losses in the previous year made up 57% of the total bought from Umgeni Water.

Said Gaffar: “We said let us establish a board with oversight of this spending on the water infrastructure. This is a pure loss of upwards of R1.7-billion a year.

“Apart from the increases in water tariffs, there is a R1.48 levy per kilolitre for infrastructure. We have no idea where that money goes. We said we’ll help you rebuild and provide oversight.”

Gaffar’s fears have been echoed by opposition parties including ActionSA, which spearheaded court action against the city because of the sewage crisis that was caused by the April 2022 floods severely damaging sanitation works.

ActionSA provincial spokesperson Alan Beesley said it emerged in failed mediation that the city had received R1.5-billion in national government relief after the floods, but only allocated R220-million to water and sanitation.

eThekwini rates boycott

Ratepayers at the meeting with eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda and council speaker Thabani Nyawose. (Photo: Greg Arde)

Said Gaffar: “There will be civil unrest without water. Already, contractors with water tankers are supposed to help residents, but they are fleecing us. And other contractors are deliberately damaging water infrastructure to get more work.

“These guys are making a killing and we are at their mercy.”

Beesley said water was a cause for grave concern and symptomatic of a wider malaise. General maintenance was budgeted at 8% of the budget but was actually 6.3%, or it could be as low as 3.8%, according to a report by the provincial government.

The city budgeted for 35% in water losses when it knew losses were 57%. “eThekwini can’t draw more water from Umgeni Water. The amount is capped. So there will be less water available and more water losses.”

This week, the council introduced a raft of supply chain management changes it says are aimed at protecting the public purse; the Metro Police fined food franchise McDonald’s R5,000 for illegal dumping; and independent research confirmed that the city’s tap water was safe to drink.

Whereas Gaffar said the city was trying to fast-track repairs so that it could say ratepayers do not have grounds for complaint, Kaunda said it was proof the city was meeting service delivery needs.

ANC rivalry

Kaunda was adamant that any assistance offered to the city from the national or provincial government was welcomed, but he wanted “no intervention”.

Prickly talk about intervention takes place against the backdrop of ANC rivalry between its Taliban faction, which runs the province, and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s faction, which runs eThekwini, says DA member of the provincial legislature Martin Meyer.

A few weeks ago, Meyer questioned Sithole-Moloi about the refusal of the ANC in eThekwini to meet her to discuss proposals around appointing an advisory body to support the city.

Her reply to Meyer came in two reports to the Cogta committee that outline just how serious eThekwini’s challenges are. The reports take note of “political resistance” from eThekwini to accept help.

Meyer says the reports were distributed to MPLs electronically and then withdrawn, but have made it into the public domain and are a damning indictment. “The city is broke and what money it has got it is not able to spend,” Meyer said. “eThekwini has cash on hand for 27 days, so it could last a month in the event of a boycott. Treasury guidelines suggest at least 90 days’ cash in reserve.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Public Protector probes billions in unspent government funds meant for 2022 KZN flood relief efforts

The water and sanitation infrastructure challenges, the reports say, are primarily a result of the city’s “failure to budget for and implement infrastructure maintenance”. It wants R110-billion over the next 10 years to get back on track, “which is almost an impossible task”. Poor management has resulted in ageing and dysfunctional infrastructure. High water losses from leaks and burst pipes are not rapidly fixed.

Beyond its budget woes, the city has also been unable to spend grant funding from the national government and would forfeit at least R233-million as a result.

But Kaunda was having none of that. In fact, he said, in one instance the city was rated the best in the country for spending grants. 

Blatant disregard of bylaws is creating an ‘ungovernable mess’

A sure sign of a city in decline, the detractors of eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality say, is its inability to uphold its own bylaws.

Whether it is policing land-use management or clamping down on late-night bars, eThekwini seems to be giving free reign to rogue developers, backyard panel beaters and taverns that flout bylaws with impunity.

For 10 years, the residents of a road in Clare Estate have been living next to a truck yard and panel-beating shop they say popped up illegally. Hooting, banging and clattering carry on until the early hours of the morning.

trucking

A trucking company in Cato Manor has invoked the ire of an opposition councillor and residents who have complained about noise pollution and safety issues. (Photo: Mandla Langa)

“It is intolerable,” a resident said. “We are desperate. We have all called the municipality, but the city has no log of our complaints. When we call the Metro Police, they either say we must be careful of truckers because they are dangerous guys or they tell us everyone has a right to make a living.

“We can’t sleep at night. The road is too narrow to accommodate this type of operation and we have two schools nearby.”

Clare Estate residents are about as fed up as residents of Clairwood, where the boundary lines between residences and business blurred years ago.

In Morningside, the patrons of a tavern overlooking Umgeni Road often watch the cops cruise by as the party throbs on unhindered into the early morning hours. Messages on the local security group reflect the residents’ despair.

“It’s 3am and the music is still going. What else must be done to get them to toe the line? Metro Police has been there but they still carry on!”

The resident, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said: “I challenge the city to show us how many times this bar has been fined. We see the cops arrive and the bouncers come out and slip them money.”

Opposition councillors in eThekwini said the city’s refusal to deal resolutely with bylaw infringements was the result of bad management and corruption.

Trucks from the company in Cato Manor operating in a residential area. (Photo: Mandla Langa)

“The law is not being enforced, simple,” said IFP councillor Mdu Nkosi. “Often it is because of corruption. I tried to do something about a businessman stacking shipping containers in Mayville. He was very arrogant with me in spite of many complaints from residents. If a container fell on school children it would be a disaster. Businessmen boast about how they get away with this.”

In my ward… a trucking company has taken over a vacant piece of land next to a school. Little kids run the gauntlet dodging huge trucks.

DA councillor Rory Macpherson described the issue as an ungovernable mess. “In some areas, there seems to be absolutely no sanction for people breaking the rules. It has a huge impact on homeowners.

“Imagine if you have spent your life savings on buying a home only for some cowboy to move in next door and run a trucking business or a panel shop.

“That is happening across the city. Various city departments kick this ball around, but they don’t deal with it comprehensively. In my ward in an area called Ottawa, a trucking company has taken over a vacant piece of land next to a school. Little kids run the gauntlet dodging huge trucks.

“It is terrifying and we have complained repeatedly, to no avail.”

They have lost control of the city. This is straightforward anarchy.

Cheryl Johnson runs a group called Save Our Berea that has been fighting the illegal repurposing of residential properties for commercial use for years. “Residents’ complaints to Land Use Management and the Building Inspectorate fall on deaf ears. Promises by officials to investigate and issue stop-work orders drag on endlessly.”

Lawbreakers do not care, Johnson said. “Neither does the municipality, it seems. They have lost control of the city. This is straightforward anarchy.”

A car mechanic operating from a residential address in Durban. (Photo: Supplied)

Macpherson said the policing of zones according to the eThekwini Land Use Scheme had become “almost non-existent”. He and fellow councillor Aamir Abdul have led marches on illegal businesses to protest, but without the city’s support, nothing was likely to happen.

“Imagine the stress of living with big trucks riding over the pavements next to schools, or the constant banging and toxic spray paint of illegal panel shops.”

Metro Police spokesperson Colonel Boysie Zungu said the city had pursued 86,886 bylaw infringements in the past year. “We conduct bylaw enforcement almost every day.” 

The consequence: you die

The financial crisis in eThekwini is largely a result of a lack of consequence management, according to a report recently submitted to KwaZulu-Natal MPLs. The report says this is “common failure”.

eThekwini’s City Integrity and Investigation Unit has finalised 23 serious cases that require strict implementation of findings against implicated employees. Late last year, ActionSA councillor Alan Beesley called on the city to act on a backlog of 45 disciplinary hearings dating back to 2019. But often there is no action against crooked staff because witnesses are intimidated and refuse to testify.

EFF councillor Thami Xulu heads the city’s Municipal Public Accounts Committee. A case being considered by the committee involves death threats made to the city’s investigators probing middlemen who allegedly stole from poor city pensioners. Xulu said 50,000 pensioners were supposed to each receive a Christmas grant of R600, “but the grannies only got R500”. “We don’t know the extent of the loss. There are a few parties involved. We have received a report of the irregularities. The matter is in-committee and under investigation. The next step is to get input from the city manager.” Xulu said more sinister than the fraud were the death threats received by city investigators. “Fraud and corruption is shocking, but death threats are too scary. We are being held ransom here.”

Death threats in eThekwini are par for the course. In 2018, the Auditor-General had to withdraw its staff from eThekwini, halting an audit of the city’s books because of death threats. Then mayor Zandile Gumede expressed deep regret at the fact. This month, witnesses testifying against her in her fraud and corruption case said they were too scared to testify.

Assassinations are rife in Durban. In 2021, ANC eThekwini councillor Siyabonga Mkhize was shot dead, allegedly by his comrade and successor, Mzi Ngiba, who is currently in custody and on trial for the murder. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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