More problems

2011-11-02 00:00

“MARITZBURG Mess.” That was the title of an excerpt aired on the investigative TV programme Carte Blanche a year ago. Twelve months down the line and 18 months since the municipality was placed under administration, we still seem to be wallowing in muck. Have we been duped?

There have been some superficial changes: the streets are clean, although not as clean as they should be. Waste management still remains a hit-and-miss affair. Swimming pools remain closed, street lights broken, and now we have problems with falling jacarandas and rotting lampposts. The municipal fleet remains derelict and there is no money to replace basic equipment. Most shocking of all is that the debt had increased from R520 million when the municipality was placed under administration to close to R1 billion since then.

Kevin Perumal, the last of the senior managers who was suspended and charged, won his case last week. No one else from the old regime has been charged to date, or made to answer for the municipality's downfall. KZN MEC for Co-operative Governance Nomusa Dube told Carte Blanche that the municipality is in dire straits. Asked how it got to that point, she said: “Bad governance, bad judgment, wrong books, mismanagement and corruption.”

Today a couple of junior officials, Ajay Beharie and Terry Scheffermann, remain under suspension and are yet to be charged. Ironically, they are officials who were assisting the Provincial Intervention Team (PIT). They were part of Operation Pitbull, a programme to recoup debt that was much lauded on the Carte Blanche programme. Former administrator Johann Mettler told Chantal Rutter that in just 17 days the Pitbull team collected about R17,5 million. Beharie’s disciplinary hearing is currently being held. Scheffermann is yet to be charged. Similarly Rex Singh and Eva Gounden, who were put in charge of the supply chain management section by the PIT team, remain suspended and are yet to be charged. What of former PIT strongman Ben Dorffling who was in charge of Pitbull? He was quietly let off when his contract ended and according to municipal insiders is currently the chief financial officer (CFO) in a municipality somewhere in the North West Province.

Similarly, tough-talking former administrator Mettler went off in December last year when his contract came up for renewal and was replaced by current administrator Sibusiso Sithole.

When Sithole came into the municipality, indications are that he investigated what the former PIT team had gotten up to. Hence the suspension of junior officials that worked with them. Operation Pitbull seems all but defunct and we have yet to hear of what strategy is in place to deal with the astronomical amount of R1 billion owed to the city.

There was also all that time and paper used by the old PIT team while working out a new structure for the municipality. This was dumped in its entirety by Sithole, with the municipality returning to the old structure.

A big issue on the Carte Blanche programme was electricity theft in the city. In fact, Mettler came very close to calling us a city of thieves. He told Rutter that up to 75% of businesses in the city are tampering with their water and electricity meters. Despite Operation Pitbull, to date not a single electricity thief has been charged.

Dube mentioned collusion between business and officials where a person who owed R50 000 would get an official to fiddle the system and end up paying R20. An investigation was apparently launched into this collusion and a company called Focus was apparently brought in at an estimated cost of some R5 million. Staff even underwent lie detector tests. To date no one has been charged or disciplined and it is not clear whether evidence of such collusion was found.

Then there was the shock former mayor Mike Tarr expressed on the programme at unqualified staff working at the municipality. Tarr said: “We found managers who could not manage, we found people down to typists who could not type.” He went on to say, there will be no more appointments “based on friends, cousins and uncles and all those things”.

Mettler had said that a skills audit was to be conducted within the municipality. To date there is no evidence, no reports presented to council, that such an audit has been carried out.

Have we been duped? Sadly, it seems so. The evidence suggests that placing the municipality under administration has created more problems than solutions. It seems the move was more of a political solution on the eve of local government elections in 2010 than anything else. Otherwise, why would some officials be charged and not others? Reflecting on Dube’s reasons for the downfall it seems this was a case of collective misconduct. The entire senior management, both political and administrative, should have been held accountable — from the mayor to the municipal manager, downwards.

Looking back, a better solution would have been to have let national government sort out the mess. After all, Msunduzi is a category B municipality, whose financial oversight falls directly under the National Treasury Department and not the province. Perhaps this can still be done?

• nalini@witness.co.za

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