Geriatric terrorists take on municipality

2012-04-07 15:10

To the casual observer Doug ­Grewar and Fanie Venter are two typical white, small-town, old toppies: bored, lonely retirees with ­little better to do than sit around moaning about how Vryheid, Zululand, and the rest of the county has gone to the dogs since 1994.

But the treasurer and public ­relations officer of Vryheid’s Abaqulusi Ratepayers’ Association (ARA) are also the Zululand district municipality’s most persistent community activists, earning themselves the title of “geriatric terrorists’’ from the local Abaqulusi municipality since they decided to get involved in civic ­issues a couple of years ago.

With Venter’s intricate knowledge of the area and who does what in the municipality – he has lived in the town for 41 years – the two are constantly lobbying municipal staff to fix potholes and streetlights, sort out water leaks and clean up rubbish.

As a result, they often bypass councillors they believe are less than effective, pressuring unit managers to cut through red tape to get things moving – and making enemies in the process.

Frankly, neither gives a toss.

“We’re not the most popular people with the council staff and the councillors who don’t work,’’ says Venter, a retired medical professional. “That’s okay by us.’’

“We believe that if you pay for a service, you should get the service. If you don’t, then it’s like going to the supermarket and paying for groceries and then the supermarket takes them back from you.

“It really doesn’t make sense. We pay rates, we pay for water, we pay for electricity and we believe that we need to make sure that’s what we get,’’ the 68-year-old adds.

“People know that we will put pressure so if somebody’s streetlights don’t work, they call us. The next morning I’ll be waiting at the electricity depot. The same day the lights get fixed. If we don’t intervene, it can take weeks,’’ he says.

Both believe the three-year-old ratepayers’ body is growing because of their activism, which even saw President Jacob Zuma intervening to stop the provincial health department from removing public parking bays at the local state hospital and giving them to staff, forcing patients to park in the nearby veld.

“If you don’t speak up, you get left behind,’’ grins Venter. “We were at a breakfast with the president, business and so on and he asked what our problems were. I explained and he got it sorted out right away. There’s no door we won’t knock on.’’

Two weeks ago they exposed a major leak in the purified water supply from the local dam which had been pouring thousands of ­litres of water a day into the veld, using contacts in the local media and social media – yes, they do have a Facebook page.

The result: the crumbling asbestos cement piping has been repaired and the leak plugged.

Venter, who has a reputation for his obsession with rubbish, started his activism by buying rubbish bags and hiring homeless people to pick up litter around town and at illegal dumpsites.

He would transport the bagged rubbish in his car to proper dumpsites. After several years of flying solo, he decided to join the ARA.

Grewar (72), a former construction contractor from Zambia who worked in Swaziland before ­moving to Vryheid 14 years ago, says most of the town’s problems relate to the fact that the IFP ran a “one-party state’’ for 18 years ­until being ousted by an ANC/NFP coalition last year.

“The political changes and the hung council means that now all the councillors and officials will have to work. During the one-party state run by the IFP the council wouldn’t even talk to us. They ran this town into the ground.

“At least new mayor Patience Khaba is willing to talk to us and asked us for a list of the top five issues we need her to deal with at a time. We are pleased with this and hope we can work together,’’ he says.

They have prioritised water, ­rubbish, potholes, vending bylaws and massive overtime bills as key issues for action.

Grewer and Venter took City Press on a pothole by pothole tour of Vryheid’s streets.

It’s boiling hot and dusty, but the duo meticulously points out each hole, every pile of rubbish and illegal vendor from Venter’s green Toyota Tazz. Abaqulusi’s geriatric terrorists are doing what they do best.

A municipal official who asked not to be named said the ARA’s ­activities were “very helpful’’ in ­ensuring that things got done.

“They think that everything gets done because of their activities but they do help in getting things done. As an official I can report a pothole 10 times and nothing will get done. If the ARA turns up and they throw their toys out of the cot they sometimes get a result,” he said.

“It really does help. The new mayor is also willing to talk to them so I believe this will also help in the long run.”

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