How a municipality cleaned up its act

2014-08-03 15:00

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It’s midday on Friday – sloping off time for council workers in municipalities across KwaZulu-Natal and the rest of South Africa.

But in Bergville, the seat of the Okhahlamba Local Municipality, a team from a local cooperative is hard at work prepping a stretch of verge for planting along the R74 leading from Winterton to Harrismith in the Free State.

The team has a 12-month contract to upgrade the parks and gardens in Okhahlamba, which was one of seven KwaZulu­Natal councils to earn a clean audit from Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu this week.

While they work, Okhahlamba municipal manager Siza Sibande pops in for a chat with them and a second crew working on a road upgrade project across the way.

The crews are among 200 locals whose ­municipality-sponsored cooperatives get contracts for many of Okhahlamba’s ­labour-intensive projects, from laying sewers to tarring roads and maintaining its parks and buildings.

These residents earn only R2?500 a month, but they and about 800 others taken on by Okhahlamba in paid internships were previously unemployed.

The town’s streets are jammed with traffic trying to worm past earth-moving machinery bought by Okhahlamba as part of its bid to upgrade the sewage system and lay 2km of new road per ward every year.

In 2009, KwaZulu-Natal’s MEC for ­cooperative governance and traditional affairs, Nomusa Dube-Ncube, placed Okhahlamba under administration in terms of section 139 of the Municipal ­Finance Management Act.

The municipality was broke, bleeding staff and being plundered of the few ­assets it still owned.

Sibande (42), was appointed early in 2012 on the heels of two administrators appointed by Dube-Ncube.

A municipal turnaround specialist who comes across like a bearded Superman with a Stellenbosch MBA, Sibande and his team drew up a three-year plan to move Okhahlamba from having 80 audit ­comments to securing a clean audit. They made it in two.

Ironically, Sibande’s master’s dissertation was based on Okhahlamba and surrounding municipalities, and the creation of a working model for their operation.

The rural municipality has a budget of about R160?million annually to service a population of 131?000 people in a massive area taking in the central, southern and northern Drakensberg from the Free State border to Loskop.

It’s gone from spending only 28% of its capital grant funding in 2012 to 100%.

“By January 2012, when I was appointed, the municipality was coming out of the coma it was in when the MEC intervened in 2009,’’ says Sibande.

His team first introduced a functional IT system for the municipality, which ­includes Winterton, a farming and tourist village 13km from Bergville, and then a proper internal audit section. It also filled posts with qualified people.

“We scrutinised spending patterns, drew up a credible, reliable budget and started to secure community participation. There were ­always a lot of political turf wars here, but we have managed to get to a situation where there is no interference with the administration.”

He credits Dube-Ncube’s will to sort Okhahlamba out, along with the backing he has received from council and hard work by its audit committee for making his job manageable.

“Every Thursday, we meet and we check-list our decisions and actions. We apply the Auditor-General’s guidelines to everything – our goals and objectives, our strategies, our targets. That is the bottom line in everything. If this is followed, the rest is easy.”

Siphamandla Gwala (31) a father of two who is part of the parks crew, believes things are improving.

“Look, life is expensive and we need to earn more, but before this none of us was working. This job is helping us. There are better roads in my ward now and there are some facilities.”

His co-worker S’bu Shabalala bursts out laughing.

“There are even robots now,” Shabalala says.

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