Opinionista Niki Moore 8 December 2014

Mogalakwena by-elections: Symptoms of a terminally ill democracy

By-elections are usually quite humdrum affairs: a council seat becomes vacant for a variety of reasons; various parties put their choices to have a pop at winning it; the electorate turn out to a greater or a lesser extent; there might or might not be a shift up, down or sideways, and life carries on pretty much as normal. But last Wednesday's by-election in Mogalakwena (the old Potgietersrus) threw up an anomaly or two worthy of investigation. And investigation revealed such a deeply dysfunctional local government that the very fabric of democracy could be at stake.

Even at a cursory glance, the Nov 26 Mogalakwena by-election was unusual. There were 13 seats being contested – an unusually large number. The town, just before the elections, had two mayors, each of whom claimed to be a legitimate incumbent. That was really unusual. There were no DA candidates, only the EFF and independents. Not so unusual perhaps, but a bit odd. And the voter turnout was exceptionally low – hovering around 20%. Even for a by-election, that is low, and indicates some kind of deep voter dissatisfaction. It was worth taking a look.

Most of the anomalies were linked, and have their roots back in 2009, and the appointment of William Kekana as municipal manager. Shortly after moving into his office, Kekana received a visit from a group of councillors. They wanted him to fiddle tenders in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Kekana refused, and thereby marked himself as a man that needed to be removed. This refusal also cut the council almost exactly in half: 23 of the councillors (along with 11 opposition members) wanted a clean government, 29 of the councillors, led by mayor Tlhalefi Mashamaite, wanted access to municipal funds.

Kekana describes the kind of request that was put to him: “Mashamaite wanted me to set up a tender for a 6km road. But then I must only build three kilometres, and give the rest of the money to him. He also wanted me to give tenders to his friends. When I refused, I was chastised.”

Community leader Percy Nketsi describes this cabal as the ‘black wolves’: a group of elected and appointed officials who, along with a taxi boss called Isaac Matjila, are determined to enrich themselves out of council coffers.

Over three years, the 23 ANC councillors tried three times to eliminate this corruption by siding with the opposition to remove the mayor. They also tried to fire Henry Thobejane, the council’s corporate service director who was found guilty of 26 charges including fraud and theft. On each occasion the Waterberg regional office of the ANC suspended the councillors and reinstated the officials. The community also got involved – Piet Pale, leader of the Mogalakwena Residents’ Association, formed a group to protest the ongoing protection of the mayor and his corrupt officials.

Things came to a head in 2013 when mayor Mashamaite called all the managers together and informed them that from now on, he would be in charge of tenders. Municipal manager Kekana told him that this was not legal. Mashamaite responded by placing Kekana ‘on special leave’. He was suspended for four months.

According to a later KPMG forensic report, this four-month period was a free-for-all in council. The report found that, during this period, service delivery “ground to a halt”. Municipal money was spent on ANC rallies, more than a million rand was spent irregularly, invoices were amended after they had been signed, there were inflated invoices for procured goods, there was a flouting of supply chain procedures. The report was a searingly damaging document.

But the only response from the provincial government was that they refused to intervene. This document had been commissioned by the council, they said, and therefore the council should deal with it. There was such a howl of protest over this decision that the provincial government was eventually forced to recant and appoint an administrator. Unfortunately for the ‘good guys’ in council, though, the administrator was not, according to them, a suitable person. It was alleged he had been brought in merely to whitewash what was going on.

In July 2014, Piet Pale of the Mogalakwena Residents’ Association was gunned down by unknown gunmen at his home in Mahwelereng. Kekana and Nketi were also on the list. Pale’s murderers have never been found.

In September, in a final push for honesty, the council tried one last time. The renegades voted with the opposition to remove mayor Mashamaite and chief whip David Lange, who had both been implicated in the KPMG report. They brought fraud and theft charges against the two. They also appointed councillor William Mabuela as the new mayor.

The ANC responded quickly: they ignored the fraud charges, suspended the 22 rogue councillors, re-instated Mashamaite, and – in order to bury the troublemakers once and for all – appointed nine new PR councillors and announced 13 new candidates for the next by-elections.

But the expelled councillors and newly-minted mayor Mabuela were not prepared to go quietly. They continued reporting for work, and would not allow the new PR councillors or mayor Mashamaite into the council building.

And this is where it got really strange. Mashamaite arrived at work on 4 November with a police contingent. This ‘invasion force’ elbowed their way into the council chambers, forcibly installed Mashamaite as mayor, ordered staff and councillors to leave the building, and supervised the swearing-in of the new PR councillors; this was unprecedented. Mashamaite claimed that the SALGA Limpopo executive had voted him back as mayor, and therefore he was only asserting his rights. Mabuela riposted with a court order claiming that the SALGA meeting was illegal; Mashamaite responded by bringing the police along on four more occasions to ‘storm’ the council offices in order to allow him to take up his place in the mayoral chambers. (It must be stressed that the police were acting under the instructions of a civilian, using force, in contravention of a court order.)

This was the backdrop for the 26 November by-elections. Police patrolled the town that simmered in tension. There were two mayors at loggerheads with each other. There were 13 expelled ward councillors. There was a disillusioned electorate.

The low voter turnout was unsurprising: the voters had completely lost faith in the democratic process as they had seen it manipulated out of recognition. Their lack of interest was a protest against this attempt to pack the council with Mashamaite’s supporters.

The DA withdrew from the elections as they were fully cognisant of the fact that it was very likely that these elections would be declared null and void.

The outcome of the elections was not too surprising: the ANC won back all its wards with a satisfyingly high average – a 78% poll. As far as the ex-mayor Mabuela, municipal manager Kekana, and the ousted 22 councillors are concerned, the Mashamaite faction is firmly back in the saddle with no impediment to looting the council.

The only remaining question is why Mashamaite and his followers enjoy such extremely unwavering support from the provincial and national government and the regional ANC, when residents, councillors and investigators are agreed that Mashamaite has overseen grave corruption and mismanagement. And the answer is probably the reason why Percy Nketi is on a hit list.

“It’s all because of the mine,” he says, referring to the recently-established Platreef platinum mine just outside Mokopane. The Mogalakwena municipality recently undertook to supply the mine with grey water for 30c per kilolitre for the next 30 years, the proviso being that if the grey water is insufficient for the mine’s needs, it will be supplemented by the town’s drinking water. This means that taps in Mokopane might run dry while the mine enjoys preferential access to resources. Nketi is quite outspoken about the names of all the people benefiting from a ‘generally corrupt relationship’ with the mine. There is money to be made, and if that means subverting the democratic process, that’s just too bad for the people of Mogalakwena.

There is an inescapable conclusion here: Mayor Mashamaite and his council are protected by very senior people in the ANC who are prepared to overlook forensic investigations, community protests, and their own honest cadres. The day that the police forced their way into the municipal government offices, just like the way they forced their way into the National Parliament a short while before, is the day that democracy died. DM


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