Our Burning Planet


Government opens criminal cases against 26 municipalities over sewage pollution crisis

Government opens criminal cases against 26 municipalities over sewage pollution crisis
An overflowing sewage manhole. (Photo: Msunduzi River Crisis Committee) | Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu and his senior officials remain under growing pressure to curb the flow of sewage pollution. (Photo: Lulama Zenzile / Die Burger / Gallo Images)

The cases have been opened against the municipalities for repeated sewage spills or failing to comply with government clean-up directives.

The national Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has opened 36 criminal cases against 26 municipalities as part of its drive to clean up the swamp of untreated sewage in towns and cities in many parts of the country. 

Responding to a recent article in Daily Maverick about the prosecution of the Govan Mbeki Local Municipality in Mpumalanga for a series of sewage pollution offences, DWS spokesperson Wisane Mavasa has disputed suggestions that there is “little evidence that similar tough action” is being pursued against municipalities in other provinces.

In fact, Mavasa stated, the DWS had opened several criminal cases against municipalities for repeated sewage spills or failing to comply with government clean-up directives.

Her department has also provided a spreadsheet listing the current criminal cases against municipalities in six provinces. Some cases go back as far as 2018, but the majority of cases were opened last year.

So far, however, only four of these 36 cases have led to convictions after four municipalities (three in Mpumalanga and one in Gauteng) agreed to plead guilty in terms of plea and sentence agreements.

In a fifth case, the department secured a civil court interdict against the Msukaligwa Local Municipality in Mpumalanga. The department noted that fresh criminal charges had been laid after a previous docket against this municipality “got lost” at a local police station.

On a provincial basis, the list indicates that eight criminal cases were opened against eight Mpumalanga municipalities, 10 against four Limpopo municipalities, eight against four Free State municipalities, five against five North West municipalities, four against four Gauteng municipalities and one against the Kannaland municipality in the Western Cape.

With the exception of four pending cases against the City of Johannesburg and Tshwane metros, most cases involve alleged transgressions by smaller local or district municipalities.

Despite the department’s assurances of tough action, the recent plea and sentence convictions against the Lekwa, Govan Mbeki, Rand West and Thaba Chweu municipalities have raised several questions around the legal remedies available to local communities and the national DWS.

sewage pollution

Sewage and industrial effluent pour down a hillside in the Peacevale area outside Pietermaritzburg. Residents say this leak has been going on for five years. (Photo: Msunduzi River Crisis Committee)


Four recent plea and sentence agreements led to substantial monetary fines against these municipalities, but some observers have voiced scepticism on whether such agreements lead to real action or accountability from senior municipal officials.

Several Daily Maverick readers have questioned who ends up paying these fines; whether the remedial action will be effective and whether monetary fines are a suitable punishment when levied against the municipality as an entity — instead of the personal pockets of senior council officials.

According to legal researcher Dr Johandri Wright, a recent civil court judgment has helped to provide further legal clarity on the role of the courts in enforcing the law and Constitution in cases where the oversight function of the national government is ignored by local government bodies.

Wright, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Western Cape, said the case also illustrated that municipalities can no longer hide behind “lack of funding” as a general excuse for not fulfilling their obligations.

Writing in the Local Government Bulletin of the Dullah Omar Institute, she provided a legal analysis of the recently concluded civil case, Minister of Water and Sanitation v Msukaligwa Local Municipality and Others

Wright noted that, over a period of several years, the DWS issued several directives to this municipality to halt excessive levels of human faecal contamination from the Ermelo wastewater treatment works.

As a last resort, the minister approached Mpumalanga High Court Judge Bruce Langa for an interdict.

In its defence, the municipality argued that the minister had not declared a formal dispute in terms of the Intergovernmental Relations Framework Act of 2005. 

It argued that this Act prohibits any litigation between two organs of state unless a dispute is formally declared and all reasonable efforts to resolve the dispute have failed.

The municipality also cited its financial woes as a defence for not complying with the National Water Act.

In his ruling, Judge Langa showed that over the past several years, the DWS had explored many channels to address the non-compliance of the municipality, but nothing had been achieved. 

sewage pollution

A makeshift channel drains regular sewage overflows near homes in Embalenhle, Mpumalanga. (Photo: Supplied)

Langa commented: “In this case, the municipality clearly remained supine despite the critical problem that was raised many times by the minister … the minister cannot now be faulted for approaching the courts for relief.”

On the second argument, Wright said the municipality did not provide any detailed information on why it was not financially capable of providing basic water and sanitation services — despite having Treasury funding allocations and provision in its budget to provide these services.

“Consequently, the court found that it is not sufficient for municipalities to ‘throw hands up in the air and say it does not have funding’. Another point was that this situation did not occur overnight, but that it was slow onset and caused by many years of mismanagement.” 

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA faces serious human health risks if we continue discharging toxic sewage into waterways

In an interview with Daily Maverick last week, Wright suggested that Mchunu’s department — and affected local communities — should rather consider carefully structured civil court interdicts.

Such interdicts should impose strict and enforceable obligations on errant municipalities to remedy problems over a reasonable time frame.

She believes that resolving such failures becomes complex when mayors, city managers and senior staff are often replaced after local government elections.

In some provinces, local governments were also unstable because of intense political rivalry — including the murder of councillors — and lacked skilled technical staff to operate wastewater treatment works. DM


Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    1 municipality in the western cape gets criminal charges.


    Who runs it?

    Yep, you guessed it: the ANC and ICOSA

    Vote for better. Vote DA.

  • Kevin Venter says:

    The kind of negligence and corruption that leads to this is absolutely criminal and just re-affirms the fact that the ANC has no backbone when it comes to dealing with corruption. The absolute funniest part of all is that the municipalities get FINED for letting this happen but one of the major reasons for it happening is because the money is being stolen or conveniently used for other purposes (KFC lunches). So the Municipality is already bled dry and then has a fine to pay when the perpetrators are still employed in the job that they have not done. South Africa really is the twilight zone.

  • Gerhard Vermaak says:

    So the anc government are taking the anc councils to court, go figure?!

    • Mark Hammick says:

      And who pays?

      Us the “gatvol” tax and rate payers.

    • Running Man says:

      This is correct—but the core of it is a federal agency exercising oversight (for a change!) over a local municipality. It’s true that the ANC controls both but this also happens in other countries.

  • Patrick O'Shea says:

    Why not aim the charges at the individuals in charge of those municipalities? Could it be because they belong to a certain political party?

    • TS HIGGO says:

      Absolutely agree, and blacklist them for ever working for a State department again. Fining the municipality and not dealing with the root of the problem doesn’t send a message to those who are corrupt and won’t stop the carnage

    • Mark Jackson says:

      Afriforum recently laid charges against a municipal manager in Emfuleni, making him personally liable. This surely is the only solution, otherwise municipalities just shrug it off.

    • Michael Thomlinson says:

      This is where the whole affair goes to pot: Criminal cases have been opened against the municipalities in question and not the individual councillors. They will simply sit back and pull a stallingrad move on the payment of a fine (which in any case will be payed by the taxpayers) and nothing will happen. What actually needs to happen is that the individuals responsible must either be charged with negligence and face jail time or at least be fired. Only then will there be some sort of accountability.

  • Denise Smit says:

    What is happening in Kwazulu Natal and the Eastern Cape. And North West?

  • Denise Smit says:

    What is happening in Kwazulu Natal and the Eastern Cape. And North West?

  • virginia crawford says:

    Charge the individuals or committees responsible: they take the big salary for taking responsibility and making decisions. Ratepayers get the sewerage and then pay the fine? Does this make sense to anyone?

  • Kenneth Arundel says:

    The only real solution is to criminally charge the municipal managers in their personal capacities. We as taxpayers already foot the bill for services not rendered, now still have to pay the fines imposed?

  • Tony Reilly says:

    All a waste of time if the real culprits ( the useless individuals concerned) are not fired and jailed !……smells like politicking by an equally useless Government department 😒

  • Martin Botha says:

    Beautiful Knysna also down the sewer.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    Criminal charges against the people responsible or this is nothing but a stunt. How in the world does levying a fine against the municipality punish the thieving incompetent scum responsible? Short answer is that it doesn’t and this is nothing more than glorious liberation movement electioneering.

  • David McCormick says:

    DWS, I suppose some action now is better than none at all after 25 years of untreated sewage spilling into the Vaal catchment system. This is a fraction of the problem! Going back to 2000, raw sewage was pouring into the Metsimatso River in Phuthaditjhaba, which eventually joins the Wilge River and then the Vaal River. Similarly, raw sewage could be seen from the N3 highway pouring into the Vaal River for years.
    Suggest that the DWS fire the person following up on the five-year old case with SAPS. How many people have got ill from this sewage spill during the five years the case has been opened without conclusion?
    For each case, the City Manager and line of underpreforming managers who accepted their jobs without taking responsibility for the greater community should be charged.

    • Phil Baker says:

      Didnt we use to sterilise then desiccate the urban sewage and use it as fertiliser bricks in thin soil farms. Turn the problem into a solution…. Just saying

  • Mark Jackson says:

    Almost pointless, to take a municipality to court, unless the municipal managers themselves are held to personal account. Because otherwise it is just the ratepayers who are left holding the bill!
    So hats off to Afri-forum for showing the way, with their recent charges regarding sewage polluation laid against a municipal manager in Emfuleni. This is surely the only way to go?

  • John Kuhl says:

    and where is Ethekwini in KZN? why they not on the list?

  • John Bewsey says:

    This problem is quite simple to be solved. The Local Government Equitable Share (LGES) amounts to R96 billion this year and is paid to 257 municipalities by central government. Instead of fining a municipality that doesn’t solve this serious situation, government should employ private contractors to correct this disastrous situation and deduct it from the relevant LGES payment.
    This will ensure that the ecology is preserved, and that the contractor will do a good job and be paid timeously without too much fraud being allowed.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      Nice idea but how do you suppose the the comrades will eat?

    • Gerrie Pretorius says:

      And have less money in the trough to ‘let the cadres eat’!! That will never happen. This is just a roundabout way of increasing the loot that anc cadres need to feed off.

  • Greeff Kotzé says:

    “On a provincial basis, the list indicates that […] five [criminal cases were opened] against five North West municipalities…”

    Two of these five municipalities are inexplicably shown on the spreadsheet to be City of Johannesburg and City of Tshwane. You did not pick up on this?

    The listed subdivision names (Zandspruit and Rooiwal) are indeed located inside the COJ borders and COT borders, respectively, so the municipality names appear to be correct, even if that province name is very incorrect.

  • Ivan van Heerden says:

    Not one case opened in KZN, but then there are big fat polished ANC turds in charge of those municipalities.

  • Donavin Hawker says:

    Jail sentences for the officials will make things happen.

    Act 36 allows for up to 10 years for polluting a waterway. Private companies have this sword hanging over their heads. Why not govt too?

  • Just Me says:

    The degradation of municipal, provincial and national infrastructure and institutions (Water / Sewer / Roads / Electricity / Rail / Police / Judiciary, etc etc) by the ANC is nothing short of criminal and treasonous. The ANC do not deserve to run anything more than a local stokvel, let alone something as complex as a municipality, a province or a nation.

    Nothing will come right with the ANC in charge. Nothing.

  • Hilary Morris says:

    An exercise in futility designed to achieve absolutely nothing! However, symptomatic of this government. Wonder why it never seems to occur to them to fire the incompetents and find people who can actually do the job. Apologies for stating the bleeding obvious – frustration levels tend to rise with stories like this.

  • Matthew Quinton says:

    ANC Gov VS ANC muni.

    Lol…. blame apartheid..

  • Random Comment says:

    Another democracy dividend – the manifest reality of all those 1994 promises

  • Andrew Molyneaux says:

    I agree with the fact that the Municipal Officials who have failed to perform the duties of their iffice as prescribed in law, they must be fined in their personal capacities – A fine against the Muni merely prejudices the residents that are suffering from the malfeasance of the defaulting officials – A double whammy that is grossly unfair – Put them in jail if they cannot pay – Courts must stop “pussy footing” around.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    It is not going to help anything to convict municipalities; those fines will only be paid by the public. There is only one thing that will work, and that is for mayors and municipal managers to be charged in their personal capacity – in other words, for them to not only lose their jobs, but also to land in jail. This is long overdue. The problem is that the municipalities that are ruled by ANC cadres think they can act with impunity because the ANC will protect them; this is part of the nationalist ideology, and it has been what has happened for decades. So some of these mayors and municipal managers must be forced to take responsibility in their private capacity. If the laws or even the Constitution has to be changed, then so be it.

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