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ANALYSIS

Stemming the tide — Senzo Mchunu battles ongoing water crisis while confronting his party

Stemming the tide — Senzo Mchunu battles ongoing water crisis while confronting his party
Illustrative image | From left: Minister of Water and Sanitation Senzo Mchunu and Deputy Minister of Water and Sanitation David Mahlobo. (Photos: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti | uMngeni-uThukela Water Board)

The provision of potable water could soon be a political issue comparable to load shedding. While some of the problems appear insurmountable, there is evidence that Minister of Water and Sanitation Senzo Mchunu is trying to fix what he can, even if that means sparking political disputes with people in his party.

The ongoing water crisis and apparent efforts to sort it out may provide an opportunity for the private sector to play a greater role in the provision of water for municipalities.

Last week, the City of eThekwini told residents it would not meet a deadline imposed by Minister of Water and Sanitation Senzo Mchunu to resolve water problems in Verulam, Phoenix and other areas in the north of the city. The statement followed water outages that had continued for at least two months.

Community members said Mchunu imposed the deadline on the council at a community meeting.

It was the latest development in a long-running dispute between the council and Mchunu over water problems.

In particular, eThekwini has been unable to stop the pumping of raw sewage into rivers that run into the ocean, forcing the municipality to close beaches.

As Daily Maverick’s Tony Carnie has reported in depth, this became a political issue when ActionSA lodged a court application suggesting the City of eThekwini was criminally liable for the sewage that pollutes rivers in that area.

At the time, council officials tried to blame the floods that ravaged KZN in 2022. However, evidence presented in the case showed the problems began before the floods.

Eventually, the city agreed to a partial takeover of its water system, allowing the uMngeni-uThukela Water Board to control some of its sewage treatment plants.

However, Mchunu has said that he would prefer the national government to take over the water system in eThekwini.

Interestingly, provincial officials have also blamed eThekwini. As Carnie has reported, they said in court proceedings that eThekwini officials should be criminally prosecuted for negligence.

Battleground KZN

There is much that is political about this.

The City of eThekwini, KZN and the national government are all run by the ANC, providing a somewhat paradoxical situation where the ruling party is in every corner of this standoff.

The already complicated situation is made more complex by the upcoming elections.

The ANC has reason to believe it could lose KZN, as several polls have indicated a massive drop in support. The introduction of former President Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party can only make this situation more precarious.

mchunu water crisis zuma

Former president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Gallo Images / City Press / Tebogo Letsie)

Meanwhile, both the DA and the IFP can tell voters in that province that they have governance experience there.

And, while communities like Verulam have a loud voice in the news media, there are many other people and communities in KZN with similar problems but whose voices are not as loud — and they may well speak by voting for other parties or withholding their votes from the ANC.

This could have emboldened Mchunu to make his comments — he’s well aware the ANC must give voters hope that their problems can be solved.

Last year, the ANC’s national leaders visited KZN in an indication of how concerned they were about how the province was being governed.

In the meantime, Mchunu sounded the alarm about the security situation in KZN following the formation of Zuma’s MK. He expressed concern that the potential for violence in that province was high and said the government needed to make “sure that the country is stable from a security point of view”.

National action

Mchunu also appears determined to make a difference on a national level, not just in KZN.

mchunu water crisis mokonyane

Former water and sanitation minister Nomvula Mokonyane. (Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

One of his first acts as minister was to reinstate the annual Blue Drop and Green Drop reports, which assess the state of water supplies throughout South Africa. His predecessor Nomvula Mokonyane had stopped publishing the reports after they showed that much of the country’s tap water was not properly treated.

Just two weeks ago, Mchunu said that 64 councils across South Africa had to appoint external service providers, essentially because their systems had collapsed.

Considering the process of privatisation appears to be gaining momentum in key areas, this could open a door to major changes in the running of our water services.

Meanwhile, speaking at the African Mining Indaba two weeks ago, Seriti Resources CEO Mike Teke suggested that mining companies such as his could sell treated water to municipalities.

Considering the confluence of events at the moment, with failing water services administered by councils, a minister who is pushing for outside service providers, and the fact that at least one big mining company now wants to enter this space, there is scope for major changes to occur.

Trust deficit

While Mchunu has made much progress during his tenure as water and sanitation minister, there is no certainty that he will be in this position after the election. Even if the ANC wins the election outright, President Cyril Ramaphosa could move him to another position.

mchunu water crisis ramaphosa

President Cyril Ramaphosa (left) and Minister of Water and Sanitation Senzo Mchunu (right) on a visit to Nelson Mandela Bay on 18 July 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Lulama Zenzile)

Mchunu rose to national prominence partly through his opposition to what was seen as the Zuma political unit at the ANC’s Nasrec Conference in 2017. He appeared to lead Ramaphosa’s campaign in KZN at the time.

His deputy minister, David Mahlobo, was on the other side of this dispute. Strangely, Mahlobo may be one of the people in the executive most qualified for their post. He holds a BSc Honours degree in biochemistry and has other qualifications in water management. Before entering politics, he worked as a water official in Mpumalanga.

However, the Zondo Commission heard that during the State Capture era, Mahlobo regularly walked out of the State Security Agency headquarters with large amounts of cash while he was state security minister. The commission found that more investigations into his conduct were necessary.

Despite Ramaphosa’s promise during his State of the Nation Address this month that, “We will not stop until every person responsible for corruption is held to account”, Mahlobo has not been removed from his position.

His track record surely shows he cannot be trusted, and yet he retains influence over the large amounts of money his department spends.

This will make it difficult for Mchunu to convince other role-players, particularly businesspeople, to trust him.

The biggest question hanging over all of this is whether Mchunu retains his position after the elections — and if he doesn’t, whether this process of real change to our water systems will continue without him. DM

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