Opinionista Niki Moore 19 August 2014

Life in the North West: The bad news and the worse news

The bad news, from the point of view of the people who care about these things, is that service delivery in the smaller towns and rural areas of the North West province has deteriorated beyond the point of no return. But this is not the worst news. Even worse, in the province of the North West, is trying to find someone in any position of authority who cares.

For people with the means and the energy, life is bearable. They have bought generators and water tanks. They cart their own refuse off to the town dumps. They buy the stone and pitch and top up the potholes in their streets. They drink bottled water. They live without streetlights, and don’t go out after dark. Small businesses have given up the unequal struggle and either moved off to the cities or closed down for good.

The people without money take their chances with candles, paraffin and water from the rivers. They no longer see the piles of rubbish that surround their homes. They get used to the outbreaks of diarrhoea and dysentery. They have given up looking for work in the diminishing pool of small businesses and farms.

But this is not the worst news. Even worse, in the province of the North West, is trying to find someone in any position of authority who cares.

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It was during the big freeze of midwinter that I went on a research trip to the North West. As a journalist with a particular interest in local government issues, I was hearing disturbing reports of service delivery collapse in many of the smaller towns. I was expecting things to be bad, but not as bad as they were.

To be fair, the North West in winter is a depressing place anyway. It is brown and burnt with a cold wind that sucks all the cheer out of you. The towns huddle listlessly on the plains: their roads potholed, their buildings broken, their streets littered. Between towns is eye-stretching sere veld or blackened crops. The only point of beauty is the endlessly clear blue sky.

The big picture in the North West is alarming: from a governance point of view last year not one municipality received a clean audit. The auditor-general’s report noted that no progress had been made from the previous year.

With regard to water, only the town of Tlokwe received a Blue Drop rating, which measures the quality of supplied water. In winter there is no rainfall, which concentrates the sewage and pollution in the meagre rivers to the point where they become dangerous. For the Green Drop rating, which measures the management of waste water (sewage to you and me), the entire province measured a mere 29%, which puts most towns in the high-risk to critical category. Sewage plants across the province are so dilapidated that they contravene their minimum operating conditions. The rivers – Crocodile, Harts, Vaal and ironically-named Schoonspruit – are, according to private water tests, polluted to the point where the water is actively poisonous. Even groundwater is contaminated by untreated sewage that soaks into the ground with its noisome load.

The 2013/2014 Provincial Finance Committee portfolio noted that, despite extensive intervention, the province was not showing progress in service delivery. There was a deterioration in management and financial accountability and targets were not being met.

This is despite eight municipalities being placed under administration in 2011. The same report details how the administrators in Tswaing, Moses Kotane, Madibeng, Ventersdorp, Taung, Naledi, Ngaka Modiri Molema, Ditsobotla and Mafikeng were resisted and undermined. While the administrators were busy, there was a slight improvement in management, but as soon as they left everything collapsed once again.

That is the big picture, the one conveyed in official reports and government documents. But for the people who live on the ground in the province, it does not begin to portray the hopelessness, the everyday obstacles, the decay.

On the surface, perhaps, things don’t look so bad. Neat rows of RDP houses ring each town. There are promises of electricity, refuse removal and water supply. But for most people, these remain promises. The houses have taps, but no water comes out. There are lights and switches, but no power comes on. There are flushing toilets, but they are not connected to any sewage system.

The entire province is a vast Potemkin village, meant to look as if people will shortly be enjoying a quality of life that is not destined to materialise.

For the middle class, the collapse is particularly hard to take. Imagine getting up each morning and not knowing if there is water in the tap, or electricity to boil the kettle. Imagine trying to run a hairdresser or butchery or guest house without services. Imagine having to travel to a nearby city for groceries because the local shops have closed.

Middle-class residents and small business owners are – apparently – selling up, closing down and relocating en masse. Unfortunately, it was impossible to find statistics on these, so I had to rely on anecdotal evidence. I heard stories of guesthouses being avoided by guests because they could not guarantee ablutions or clean laundry. Tannies in the hairdresser stuck with headfuls of perm solution with no water to wash it out. Businessmen having to finish their morning shower with buckets of water from the fishpond. Butcheries and stores closing because electricity cuts were playing havoc with their fridges. Most of these chronic inconveniences were related with wry humour, but the undercurrent is there: it is simply not feasible to run a business or start an enterprise with such unreliable service. To add insult to injury, the law compels homeowners to pay for municipal services – whether they get them or not. Ratepayers therefore have the monthly indignity of having to fork over money for refuse removal, water supply and electricity connection when they do not enjoy any of those things.

The long-term effect of this will be depopulation of the platteland, with all the concomittant problems of joblessness and decline in development.

Already the North West has 30% unemployment in the narrow sense, of people actively looking for work. There are no statistics for joblessness in the wider sense. Some 52% of the population live below the poverty line, and 27% fall into the poorest-of-the-poor category. A Provincial Decision-Making Enabling Project report in 2011 estimated that 6,6% growth was required in order to improve living conditions of North West residents: the most optimistic economic growth estimate, according to the same report, is less than 1,5%. The North West raises only 3% of the revenue it needs to function: the rest comes from National Treasury in the form of grants.

One would think that such severe challenges in a province, with no evidence of improvements after several interventions, would create a sense of urgency amongst its mandarins. Amazingly, the opposite is true.

There was a nod towards some action when, shortly after taking office in May, the new Premier Supra Mahumepelo announced a ‘turn-around’. He promised a forensic unit to probe service delivery problems and corruption. He unveiled plans for a province-wide skills audit. He wanted to hold ward councillors accountable.

It all sounded promising – if it ever happened. After two weeks of my attempting to contact the Premier, he agreed to an interview to discuss his provincial turn-around strategy. But he did not honour this appointment, and no apology or explanation has been forthcoming.

There are two possibilities here: either the Premier regards ordinary citizens with contempt, and does not feel it necessary to show good manners or consideration; or he does not actually have a turn-around strategy and therefore has nothing to discuss. Either way, the signs are ominous.

If the Premier wanted to clean up his province, there is plenty of information and advice available. There are any number of government reports, think-tank reports or media reports that enumerate where that mismanagement is, who is doing it, and why. All of them say the same thing: there is a lack of accountability and a lack of consequences for wrong-doing. Sort that out, the reports say, and the rest will follow.

But instead local government in the North West resembles a sort of suburban Game of Thrones, where party apparatchiks manoeuvre to preserve their ill-gotten positions in the face of court challenges, criminal charges, forensic reports, adverse audit findings and general, widespread, overarching municipal collapse. It’s a kind of reverse let-them-eat-cake scenario: if the middle-class complain about falling standards and deteriorating quality of life, the answer is ‘Let them live in shacks’.

For poor people who depend on the government for the meagre increments in their living conditions, the overwhelming attitude is fear. Fear that it will all stop or be taken away. Fear of the whims of officialdom. A lack of communication and mutual distrust that fosters either service delivery protests or a sullen acceptance of poor standards.

So, no-one in local government wanted to talk to me about the challenges facing them: all I ever got was denial and misdirection. A talk with the Premier did not materialise. And five days of trying to contact the new Minister of Local Government, Pravin Gordhan, accomplished nothing. DM

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