Mthatha 'has collapsed'
Mthatha - Infrastructure and services in the Eastern Cape town of Mthatha have "completely collapsed" as corruption and allegations of "political hitlists" batter the ANC-run King Sabatha Dalindyebo Municipality ahead of the local government elections.
Piles of uncollected rubbish and rubble line the edge of the town's potholed and "lawless" streets, where minibus taxis, cars and trucks flagrantly shoot red traffic lights and stop streets and overtake on solid lines at will, says Graeme Alexander, the chairperson of the Mthatha Ratepayers' Association.
The town and its surrounds are regularly hit by power blackouts and water shortages.
Last year piles of bloodied sheets stacked up at the All Saints Hospital between Mthatha and Ngcobo when desperate residents from a nearby village diverted the hospital's water to their homes.
The Mthatha River, which flows through the town and where locals once used to swim, is heavily polluted, with several tons of raw sewage spilling in every month from the town's overflowing sewers.
"Mthatha has completely collapsed," says Alexander.
"In the past 20 years, what has changed? Just about everything. There's a lack of water and electricity, the streets are dirty, the roads are lawless and in an appalling state.
"Us locals have become so used to the lawless driving that we've become defensive drivers. If you reach a traffic lights and it's green for you, you make sure you look both ways before you go through because inevitably a car or a taxi will be coming and you know they aren't going to stop."
Alexander says many ratepayers have given up on the municipality and are paying for repairs to municipal infrastructure, such as burst pipes, with their own money.
Most of the town's businesses, he says, have bought their own generators due to the frequent blackouts. The ratepayers' association, which includes black, white, coloured and Indian members, holds regular meetings with the municipality, but "nothing ever changes".
"We feel that they are paying us lip service," Alexander says.
"Nothing ever gets done."
Companies have left
Alexander, who has lived in Mthatha since 1987, says the town started to collapse in 1994 after the dissolution of the homelands and the end of tax perks for companies.
"There used to be 250 factories between Butterworth and Mthatha.
"Just outside Mthatha we used to have the largest chopsticks factory in the world, but after the tax breaks were ended the companies, the factories slowly started to close down and now, apart from a few timber mills, there are hardly any manufacturing businesses around."
Mthatha, Alexander says, was hit hard by the closure of those businesses.
"A huge number of jobs were lost and that put pressure on the town. There was a spike in crime and the situation deteriorated rapidly."
Another cause of Mthatha's depression was the moving of the administrative capital to Bisho in the former Ciskei homeland.
"That caused a large drop in business," Alexander says. "Mthatha has never fully recovered."
Political infighting, corruption
In addition, since 2004, the King Sabatha Dalindyebo Municipality and the OR Tambo municipality under which it falls, have been hammered by political infighting and numerous corruption scandals.
Former OR Tambo mayor Zaleka Cupa - an ANC NEC member who now serves as an Eastern Cape MEC - was in hot water for reportedly spending R45m of non-budgeted council money to buy seven farms for an employment project in a neighbouring province.
She was also accused of wasteful spending after using R3m of the municipality's money to send a delegation to Zambia's Independence Day celebrations.
King Sabatha Dalindyebo Municipality current's mayor Siyakholwa Mlamli was recently implicated in an alleged political assassination plot, linked to ANC candidate lists for the May 18 local government elections.
Mlami's bodyguard Thembile Ceba and his driver Thembinkosi Mapeyi have appeared in Mthatha's Magistrate's Court on five charges of conspiracy to commit murder.
Police arrested the two for allegedly soliciting a hit man and paying him a deposit of R10 000, allegedly withdrawn from Mlami's account, to kill five prominent provincial ANC leaders.
In March hundreds of demonstrators marched through Mthatha to protest against "organisational processes" in the ANC amid dissatisfaction over the party's candidate lists.
'In good nick' until 1994
United Democratic Movement (UDM) leader Bantu Holomisa, who led the Transkei until its dissolution in 1994, says when he handed over power "Mthatha was in good nick".
"It was in good nick when I handed over, but then immediately after all the towns in the Transkei, for whatever reason... I don't know, were completely neglected," he says.
Holomisa wrote a letter to former president Thabo Mbeki three years ago to ask for intervention after pipes began bursting around the town. He later wrote to President Jacob Zuma with another appeal for help.
"They promised to help, but nothing was done."
He says when the UDM won control of Mthatha in 2000 it tried to repair the broken infrastructure, but had little luck.
"We tried to fix it. We started tarring the roads, getting the water problem solved and improving the electricity, but the provincial government which is run by the ANC would delay our budget.
"They made it very difficult for us to get things done."
Holomisa is confident the UDM can win back control of Mthatha in this year's elections, despite it obtaining less than 25% of the vote in the town in the 2009 national elections.
"Mthatha is a huge mess now," he says. "The infrastructure has completely collapsed. We will have to work hard to try and fix it again, but I am confident we can win it back again and start with the repairs."
Progress being made - mayor
Mlami admits Mthatha has problems, but claims progress is being made.
He says he has done much to ease the "political" and administrative tension in the municipality.
"When I took control I had 100 fires to put out. The municipality had to prioritise and deal with the basics first."
Mlami says a top priority was easing traffic congestion from the N2 highway, which runs through the city centre.
"We are in the process of building a R87m bridge, which will ease the traffic flow in the city centre and create employment. We also have to look at the electricity system, which was last upgraded in 1964.
"With that we have the problem of a massive influx of people from the rural areas. That has put pressure on the sewers, which is the responsibility of the OR Tambo municipality."
He admits there are not enough traffic officers, saying they are expensive to train and often poached by the provincial government.
Reached rock bottom
Alexander says Mthatha's collapse is all the more tragic due to its link with former president Nelson Mandela, who was born in the OR Tambo region.
"Often, foreign journalists come through and they ask me what will happen when Mandela goes. They are always shocked about what they find in Mthatha. They ask if Mthatha is representative of what is the future of South Africa.
"I don't think so," he says after a pause.
"I think we've reached rock bottom already. We can only get better."