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Fight against ‘useless’ eThekwini mayor rumbles on

Fight against ‘useless’ eThekwini mayor rumbles on
Westville Ratepayers’ Association chairperson Asad Gaffar. (Photo: Mandla Langa)

Durban ratepayers’ champion Asad Gaffar lost a legal battle against the eThekwini municipality late last year. But he and other like-minded activists hope to win the war against an opaque local government.

In the world of politics, calling eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda “useless” barely warrants a mention. But the slur backed up by a plan to oust him merits a look.

Kaunda has been doing his best to project his embattled administration as nothing short of brilliant. Not a single photo opportunity was wasted in the last few weeks of 2023 as the public relations spin went into overdrive with an energy matched only by the scheming of opposition parties and ratepayer bodies keen to unseat the ANC and its fractious alliance partner, the EFF.

The eThekwini Ratepayers’ Protest Movement (ERPM), led by Asad Gaffar, met other ratepayer groups and a smattering of opposition parties in late November to discuss a proposal by the DA to dissolve the eThekwini council, which requires the support of two-thirds of its members.

The talks flopped on the numbers as the ANC has 99 seats, the DA 59 and the EFF 24. The IFP has 16 seats and the ACDP has two. Without cooperation between the DA and the EFF, the plan is a non-starter.

Bringing the parties together was an interesting exercise, if a bit fraught. An activist from Tongaat addressed the opposition councillors at the meeting and, summing up the sentiment of civic society, said: “You politicians have failed us.”

Jonathan Annipen, an IFP councillor, called for cooperation among the opposition: “Leadership of this city has caused the collapse. This is the worst leadership we’ve ever had. The mayor is the most useless. He is rude, arrogant and has a bloated ego. His management is despicable.”


A dilapidated building on University Road in Durban, which is occupied by vagrants, shows the collapse of services in the city centre on 22 June 2022. (Photo: Phumlani Thabethe)

Afterwards, Gaffar shrugged. He and the ERPM are largely indifferent to politics. They want opposition parties to find a middle ground for accountable local government. The ERPM’s job is “to keep politicians honest – all of them”, he said. This involves lobbying the City, engaging councillors and going to court.

In October 2023, the ERPM lost a court bid to interdict the eThekwini municipality from disconnecting the water and electricity of residents who were withholding their rates in protest against the City’s service delivery failures. The municipality welcomed the judgment, saying it meant that residents supporting the rates boycott had to pay for services, including penalties, interest and a reconnection fee.

Gaffar said the ERPM accepted the city’s court victory. “We paid over the money we were withholding. It doesn’t mean that we’ve abandoned our challenges against the city.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Civilians spearhead eThekwini ratepayers’ revolt in bid to fix municipality and set up oversight of public purse

Since the court ruling, the ERPM has started a WhatsApp group that includes all political parties. The movement is gaining ground and is being wooed by politicians, but its focus is public accountability.

Gaffar said that for almost 30 years politicians have said one thing and done another, which makes oversight critical. “eThekwini is collapsing. The water problems are getting worse. There is a main arterial road next to the Botanic Gardens that collapsed in November and has been closed since. The rivers are flowing with effluent.”

The urgency of the challenges in eThekwini and the politicking ahead of the 2024 elections have fostered talks around alternatives to an ANC government.

Zwakhele Mncwango, ActionSA’s KwaZulu-Natal leader, urged opposition parties to put their differences aside and work against the ANC.

The mayor and his comrades are clueless when it comes to running the city. They must step aside and allow those with competencies to fix the city.

“This requires the DA to work with the EFF. Ideologically, I am not comfortable with them [the EFF], but it will take all 23 opposition parties to save the city and if we are serious about saving the city we have to talk to them.”

Although multiparty cooperation on unseating the ANC and Kaunda might not happen in the short term, after this year’s elections it could result in a coalition that wrests KwaZulu-­Natal from the ANC and sees a new provincial leadership that could put eThekwini under administration.

In the meantime, eThekwini is in crisis, said Mncwango’s colleague, councillor and chartered accountant Alan Beesley. Three key areas show this: The City’s capital budget, its growing debtors’ book and its surging water losses.

Beesley said that, as of October 2023, the City had underspent its capital budget by R800-million, “with infrastructure collapsing, water losses at record highs and E. coli levels in rivers and on beaches remaining high. One would have thought that the municipality would prioritise capital expenditure.”

The debtor’s book was R27.8-billion, up by R6-billion compared with the previous year. Water losses were 55%, he said.

“The mayor and his comrades are clueless when it comes to running the city. They must step aside and allow those with competencies to fix the city.”

Glen Robbins, an independent development economist and research associate at the University of Cape Town, and the head of the eThekwini municipality’s economic planning department during the late 1990s and early 2000s, said there are few objective measures to assess the City’s performance.


The Westville Ratepayers’ Association offices in Sydenham, Durban. From left are volunteers Rose Cortes, Poovie Pillay, Enzo Gallo, Warren and chairperson Asad Gaffar. (Photos: Mandla Langa)

“In the ANC’s world, they argue they are doing very well, hence the recent salary increase for the city manager [Musa Mbhele’s annual pay package was bumped up 66% to R3.9-million]. Generous performance bonuses are also often handed out to senior executives, with the annual reports often claiming [that] management targets are met or exceeded.

“The numbers are often hidden and organisations such as ratepayers’ bodies have to self-assemble performance data over time from annual reports or by comparing them with data from other cities.

The mayor could play a bigger role in growing the economy by getting the City to help unlock the port… Water is also critical. The mayor doesn’t have a vision for securing this resource for the next 20 years.

“Take the case of water and sanitation infrastructure. The blame is placed on external factors such as floods or a lack of national funding for the renewal of apartheid-era infrastructure. The actual status of maintenance activities over the past decade – the failure to allocate budgets or to ensure work claimed was done – is often invisible in municipal public reporting, yet for citizens the deterioration in infrastructure and the lack of maintenance is glaringly obvious.

“eThekwini’s capital spending has been the lowest of the largest metros for a decade. The City is reaping the results of successive political and administrative leadership failures that have undermined what was one of the better municipal structures in the country,” said Robbins.

Asked to rate the mayor and his administration on a scale of one to 10, Gaffar said: “This isn’t a simple answer. The mayor is a figurehead. Politicians should perform oversight of the administration, where the real power lies, but they interfere in the city.

“The mayor could play a bigger role in growing the economy by getting the City to help unlock the port, where inefficiencies severely impact growth. Water is also critical. The mayor doesn’t have a vision for securing this resource for the next 20 years. That’s a huge concern.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA Person of the Year runners-up: Andy Mothibi, Simon’s Town active citizenry and civic campaigner Assad Gaffar

Daily Maverick asked Kaunda to respond to claims that he is useless. He said he ran “a functional city” recovering well after the 2022 floods. “While the infrastructure that was destroyed had been built over many years, the expectation is that we must fix everything within a short space of time,” he complained.

Kaunda said the city is one of only two that do not owe Eskom. It is able to pay Umgeni Water and despite a tough global economic climate  it “remains financially sustainable”. DM

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

DM168 front page


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Alfreda Frantzen says:

    Unfortunately my comments will not be judged as civil!

  • Brad John says:

    City management – African style!

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Normal language cannot express the disgust I am feeling.

  • Rob Scott says:

    Not sure civility is required. The courts and the government target the easy prey. Honest civil society. The building hijackers, crooks and polluters never have to face justice. The silent majority is almost ‘gatvol’ and when that happens I expect a lot of government staff may not like the outcome

  • Denise Smit says:

    Please DA, do not form a coalition with the EFF. If Action SA do it the same will happen as in Gauteng when Herman Mashaba held hands with the EFF. Think future, not short term. Hopefully the ANC will loose traction by its service delivery failures

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Both Kaunda and G Hill Lewis, mayor’s of Durban and Cape Town strive to advertise their mayorial skills. The latter has some credibility!

  • Random Comment says:

    A beautiful port city, blessed with fantastic weather, a thriving tourist sector and well-developed infrastructure, completely and irreparably ruined in less than 30 years.

    Hundreds of years of effort to build and maintain, destroyed in three decades by the ANC.

    Well done, Comrades, even I am impressed by your achievement!

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    How can you argue with a mayor whose functionality standards are so low? He will always be a success. Voters need to understand we get what we voted for, including the subterraneanly low standard of the status quo. We want a better life? Vote for one. (But not the ANC version)

  • Rae Earl says:

    I spent many holidays in Durban in the days before democracy arrived. If this is what democracy does to what was once a superb city and holiday venue, what does it mean? Are people using democracy as a means to steal, neglect, and vote corrupt people with colossal salaries into high places? If so, those same voters are getting their just rewards. Vote the ANC out and don’t entertain any thoughts of relying on the EFF or Zuma’s ridiculous MK, as alternatives. Then, maybe, a well structured coalition IFP/DA/Whatever, will contain people with civic pride and a will to work to the betterment of the whole of KZN. Failing that the province will sink into a lawless mess.

  • Zai AD says:

    the water debacle we face here, north of Durban is going on now for two years.
    if the Association of National Criminals actually spent the at least 50% of the money they collect (from us homeowners, rate payers, tax payers ) in said areas,, maybe then we will see improvements…
    Phoenix, Verulam, Tongaat, Chatsworth, Isipingo… predominantly Indian areas… makes one wonder the agenda

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