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Corruption in Makana lies behind the water and sanitation crisis that’s killing our town

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Lungile Mxube is convenor of the Makana and Eastern Cape Federation of Civic Movements. He has a long history in government, with a strong track record of fighting corruption. He led the Makana Citizens Front, established election structures and coordinated its 2021 local government elections campaign, which led to the MCF securing 18.1% of the vote, which translated to five seats.

The cause of the great Makana water crisis is corruption and the appointment of incompetent and corrupt senior officials. Resolving the crisis requires dissolving corruption in this scrapyard municipality.

Minister of Water and Sanitation Senzo Mchunu inherited a corrupt and dysfunctional local municipality that has been plagued by a great water disaster for more than a decade. His recent visit to Makana on 16 August 2023 did not offer any hope for change.

The minister has two options: either act decisively to root out a criminal syndicate that has captured the water and sanitation unit in this municipality and thus keep his credentials intact, or do nothing, which sends him and his good name down the drain by protecting internal rot.

The criminal syndicate group involves senior officials and politicians locally with a vast network provincially and nationally. This syndicate operates at three levels, so it is difficult to catch these thieves and prosecute them successfully. The levels are:

  • The governance/policy regime;
  • The procurement regime; and
  • The operational decision implementation level.

At governance/policy regime level, there is a need for a radical overhaul of weak oversight and to strengthen leadership and ensure consequence management and accountability. There is poor and weak governance oversight which is further complicated by cover-up and political protection of corrupt and incompetent municipal officials.

There is a lack of leadership and a failure to uphold the rule of law, which is linked to a veil of secrecy and lack of transparency. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: R400m later, Makhanda is still facing a catastrophic water crisis

An example is that of former director of infrastructure and engineering, Dali Mlenzana, who was suspended by the former municipal manager of the Sarah Baartman District Municipality, Ted Pillay. An independent panel of lawyers was appointed to establish whether there was a prima facie case he must answer.  

Instead of following a disciplinary process and facing corruption charges, the ANC gave him a “golden handshake”. Details of this are still being kept a secret. This unbudgeted and unjustifiable settlement came at the expense of the taxpayers, for someone who left the municipality with infrastructure decay and in deep crisis. 

Another example is that of former municipal manager Moppo Mene with four consecutive financial disclaimers. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Makana mayor and Municipal Manager face jail term over landfill neglect

All our efforts to hold him accountable were blocked by ANC majority councillors. Clearly, there is collusion between senior officials and political leadership. 

Why? 

Charging these officials may lead to the exposure of direct beneficiaries in the criminal network, which goes beyond Makana.

The scandal of Jameson Dam

In January 2022, the budget steering committee report revealed that the company ZKS Projects was awarded R6.5-million to upgrade Jameson Dam, which does not supply water to residents.

This company had already been paid R5.5-million, yet there was no report of work done.

I visited the dam. I was shocked to discover more than 50 cows locked inside and more than 20 goats. In a council meeting in March 2022, I asked the Speaker to ensure an investigation into who converted a municipal dam into cattle and goat farm and who approved this bad practice.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Makana Municipality’s sewage has been running into rivers and streams since 2014

ZKS was appointed when the manager of water and sanitation was acting director. This same manager was arrested by the Hawks in the Free State for his alleged role in a fraudulent toilet tender in a municipality he worked for before joining Makana. Despite the arrest, the municipality refused to place him on precautionary leave.

The James Kleynhans Water Treatment Works (JKWTW) receives water from a national resource, so raw water is not a problem on that side.

Makhanda’s other water plant, the Waainek Water Treatment Works (WWTW), is supplied by local dams. Whenever there is a drought money is thrown at JKWTW and the upgrade is allowed to silently fail after the drought. 

Makhanda is a high-skill community, with retired engineers and academics who can advise on such matters. But the municipality is not interested in working with the community.

Time for this strategy ran out in 2019. Local dams ran out of water, making the JKWTW the only water resource until rains started, and the appointment of water and sanitation manager Gubevu Maduna caused a collapse in technical capacity, the full extent of which is only now apparent.

In 2023, with rain topping up local dams, the WWTW should have been back in action. Yet, leading up to the National Arts Festival, the last pump at the WWTW went out of commission. At the same time, the JKWTW was down to only one pump. Water was down to one day on, two days off, and some areas were getting none at all. It was only at this point that the national ministry finally intervened, with Makhanda one pump away from total failure.

Pumps in Makana repeatedly fail. If properly used and maintained, they should last at least 15 years. As an example of shenanigans, Manco Business Enterprise, a company whose speciality is pipe laying, was awarded a tender for two pump sets at more than R4-million in September 2020. These pumps failed three weeks after being installed.

Other problems include leaks left unattended for years, leaks repaired multiple times and large parts of the town turned off to fix a leak. 

Another long-running sore is E. coli contamination, arising from inadequate chlorination of the water. Residents also complain of water staining their laundry.

Makhanda is a high-skill community, with retired engineers and academics who can advise on such matters. But the municipality is not interested in working with the community.

Maduna resigned and is now working in the neighbouring Ndlambe municipality. We advise our sisters and brothers in Ndlambe to start saving up for JoJos.

Meanwhile, we have yet another date for the completion of the project to double the capacity of the JKWTW: the end of August. We will believe this when we see it.

Why have JKWTW projects failed so often and over such a long time?

In 2022, when the main contractor, Mamlambo Construction, went into liquidation, we were told the project was 89% complete. In 2019, the DWS budget showed the project cost as R191-million. You would expect completion with a new contractor to need a bit more than the remaining 11% of the budget. But the most recent figure we have seen is R414-million, more than double the original budget!

Gross mismanagement

How is the Amatola Water Board allowed to so grossly mismanage a project so critical to Makhanda? What is the consulting engineer who signs off on deliverables doing, if project budgets so wildly mismatch funds spent?

Read more in Daily Maverick: Amatola Water vows to pull out all stops to keep Makhanda water on for National Arts Festival

In February 2022, I wrote several letters to the minister and the chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee on water and sanitation, demanding their intervention, pointing to evidence of R600-million wastefully spent. After more than 18 months, with elections looming, the minister visited Makana on 16 August 2023.

Minister Mchunu must never take the people of Makana for granted. Access to sufficient water is a constitutional right which is linked to other rights such as environmental rights, basic nutrition, food, healthcare services and development and sustainable livelihoods. 

Local businesses are badly affected, and the water crisis leads to job losses, increased hunger, hardship, suffering and mass poverty.

We dare not fail residents of Makana. We want a government that listens to the people, but more importantly, a government that works with us and not one that neglects people and only comes when it is election time. 

In response to this crisis our demands are:

  1. The minister must institute a forensic audit and investigation of water grants from the 2010 to the 2022 financial years;
  2. The minister must place the Makana Water and Sanitation Unit under administration to improve internal capacity and overhaul governance, policy and operations failures and abuse;
  3. The minister must appoint a ministerial intervention team, which must include local experts, civil society and local communities, to advise him on urgent interventions to resolve the water crisis. DM

Lungile Mxube is convenor of the Makana and Eastern Cape Federation of Civic Movements. He has a long history in government, with a strong track record of fighting corruption. He led the Makana Citizens Front, established election structures and coordinated its 2021 local government elections campaign, which led to the MCF securing 18.1% of the vote, which translated to five seats.

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