A tale of two cities – Mthatha is a shadow of its former bustling self.

2011-04-09 16:02

One of the things that used to strike you as you drove along the N2 route from KwaZulu-Natal was that the road changed colour from black to grey when you entered Eastern Cape.

It was virtually an unofficial boundary ­mark between the two provinces.

The national road got even rougher as you drove into Mthatha, the once-bustling capital of the former ­Transkei homeland.

Residents say the deteriorating condition of the N2 was symptomatic of service delivery failure in the King Sabata Dalindyebo (KSD) local municipality.

On the busy Nelson Mandela main road, traffic occasionally slows when the lights go out because the electricity ­infrastructure cannot cope with growing demand. The power grid has not been upgraded since the apartheid years.

Two new shopping malls have sprung up on the main road since the previous municipal elections, bearing witness to a thriving local economy.

It is, however, not just the main road that needs work.

Pensioner Toliki Sobekwa knows all too well how bad the roads are – he is ­unable to get to a community meeting just 300m from his house.

Sobekwa is wheelchair-bound and the ­potholes on his street in Ikhwezi (outside Mthatha) are so bad that he cannot traverse the road.

The soft-spoken grandfather spends most of his time in his modestly furnished ­two-roomed house.

He says: “If President Jacob Zuma were to come here, I would ask for proper roads and a reliable electricity supply.”
For some residents, getting ­access to water is a more pressing problem.

Chris Hani Park resident Ludwe Poto says that although there is a tap outside his homestead, he is forced to walk ­kilometres with a wheelbarrow to fetch water from a communal tap.

Poto says his tap ran dry after some local residents illegally connected themselves to the waterpipe network two years ago.

“It has been more than two years, but the municipality is not doing much about the problem besides holding ­meetings,” he says.

Residents would like to see the KSD municipality, which covers an area of about 3?019km², speed up housing delivery.

Even those lucky enough to have ­received low-cost houses feel there is not much to smile about, because of the shoddy finishes of their new homes.

Ilitha township resident Phumla Jezile says her sister had to fork out money to replace the roof of their home after heavy ­December winds blew it away.

Some of the houses in her street are standing either without a roof or with ­timber and corrugated iron roofs that have caved in.

Ilitha residents also complain about the lack of proper roads, which they say makes it impossible for ­ambulances to reach them during emergencies.

These days the surface of the N2 has been refurbished and the road looks ­better than it has looked in years – but signs of those years of accumulated ­neglect are still visible, such as the road ­running between the town and the ­industrial ­area outside ­Southernwood.

Vuyisile Ntlabati, a local businessman who runs a construction equipment hire company, says the problem with the ­authorities is that they are lackadaisical when it comes to maintenance.

“Look at this stretch of road here. The tar does not last longer than three months. It will get worse later because of ­potholes.

“Our local government is known for not being good with maintenance. They allow infrastructure to collapse and then start all over again. Occasionally we see trucks bringing tar to plug potholes.”

Ntlabati says that although the municipal officials apologise for sporadic ­water and electricity cuts, it would be ­better if they informed businesses and ­residents in advance.

“If you are in the hospitality industry you suffer a lot. Employees turn up for work, and unfortunately you have to pay them for doing nothing,” says ­Ntlabati, who is also regional chairperson of the National ­African Federated ­Chamber of Commerce and ­Industry.

Bulelwa Bam, a resident of Ncambezana village outside ­Mthatha, is fed up with the lack of improvement.

“Power outages sometimes last three days. When you phone the call centre, people there are rude,” she says.

Residents like Bam (a former social worker) have found ingenious ways to cope with unreliable service delivery.

“Sometimes water gets cut off very early in the morning. I ended up buying myself a tank. I am also planning to buy a solar panel,” she says.

What complicates things is that water and sanitation are the competence of the OR Tambo ­district municipality while electricity is delivered by the KSD ­municipality in Mthatha. Both of them are based in the small Transkei town.

KSD mayor Siyakholwa Mlamli says that his municipality needs R1.1 billion to revamp its electricity infrastructure, but so far only R150 million of the municipality’s R690-million budget has been set aside for capital expenditure.

“We are using infrastructure ­beyond its carrying capacity, because of ­urbanisation. If we are to make new ­connections we will have to upgrade ­infrastructure. We have borrowed R40 million from the Development Bank of Southern Africa,” he says.

The issue of poor housing ­delivery, he says, will soon be a thing of the past when 17 500 low-cost and social housing units are built near the town.

Construction of the first 6 000 units is due to start soon.

The leader of the ­opposition United Democratic Movement (UDM), Welile Tsipa, says he is concerned about the ­future of ­Mthatha under the ANC.

He says: “Service delivery is zero. It’s a pipe dream. The city is going from bad to worse. There will be no improvement until there is a change of guard.”

Despite all the problems, the ANC is likely to retain Mthatha. In the 2009 ­general elections the party got 58% of the vote while the UDM won 24%.

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