Dundee on edge

2014-05-12 00:00

RESIDENTS in the town of Dundee describe it as a powder keg.

A lid was placed on simmering tensions during the national election, but as the country settles back to normalcy, the cracks are expected to emerge. This time around residents are hoping it won’t be as devastating as previously. Such struggles, which are playing out in a myriad of smaller municipalities, remain the ANC government’s Achilles heel.

Just before the election, the town was tallying up the cost in lives torn apart, a divided council, service delivery setbacks and financial losses. This was all because of a power struggle over control of the Endumeni Municipality. It is a battle that has seen an office burnt down, people beaten up, e-mails intercepted and staff displaced.

According to experts such struggles, in most instances, are not about politics but about personal gain. DA Member of Parliament John Steenhuisen said the fight was to be on top to control resources and to be in a position to dish out patronage in the form of tenders and jobs.

The Public Affairs Research Institute (Pari) said there were clear signs that the problem of patronage had increased at local government level generally.

So what went down in Dundee? Arrive in town and there is little evidence of the underlying tensions. The town is clean and neat and there is hardly a pothole in sight.

However, the locals will tell you that the town is certainly not at its best. Potholes are emerging, pavements are disintegrating and there is what many consider a travesty — the “e” has fallen off the end of “Dundee” in the welcome to the town sign and it has not been fixed.

For many, the shenanigans started with the appointment of Thabani Biyela as municipal manager. The council was divided over this appointment; with one faction wanting him to get the job and the otherside not happy with the choice.

By April 2013 Biyela was suspended on various charges, including allegations of falsifying his CV, transgressing supply chain management policy and making irregular appointments.

In the months that ensued, chaos ruled; Biyela’s band of supporters took to the streets in violent protests wanting him reinstated. An office was petrol bombed, computers were stolen, senior officials from the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) had their tyres slashed and in December the acting municipal manager Reshwant Brijraj, who had been seconded by Cogta, was assaulted and fled.

With the departure of Brijraj, Biyela went back to being municipal manager, with the support of a faction led by Mayor Thulani Mahaye, This move was deeply opposed by the Speaker, Siduduzo Mdluli.

During Biyela’s tenure back in office there were allegations of jobs dished out to pals; of massive salaries and acting allowances that went way above that allowed by the regulations. There were allegations of the abuse of council vehicles, with one vehicle clocking up kilometres that amounted to a trip to Johannesburg and back in one day. There were also reports of vehicle accidents not reported and in one case no sign of a council vehicle at all.

Towards the end of March, members of the ANC’s provincial executive committee went to Dundee and reportedly read the riot act to the local council. The municipality was ordered to get its house in order. A special council meeting was called and Biyela was removed as municipal manager and re-suspended.

The MEC for Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) Nomusa Dube-Ncube in addition appointed advocate Sandile Kuboni to investigate the conduct of councillors in this debacle. His report is said to be ready and he allegedly recommended the suspension of certain councillors for their part in the upheavals. However, it was said that this was put on hold until after the election.

In the meantime Brijraj was reportedly back at work, heavily guarded by a phalanx of bodyguards, all at the cost of the local council. Further problems are arising as irregular appointments are cancelled and people find themselves jobless or facing salary and allowance cuts. Contracts as well are being reversed — and these moves are allegedly causing their own tensions.

Hence the concern that the town could be sitting on a powder keg. The sense of unease persists as well, because those involved in the earlier violence have still not been brought to book.

For now, Dundee residents are hoping that sorting out the strife in their town is going to be given priority.

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