A divided municipality

2010-03-19 00:00

FAILED states are usually seen as somewhere far away and affecting people largely unknown to most of us. Now the sad reality of living in a failed municipality is beginning to dawn on all of us who call Pietermaritzburg home.

The Democratic Alliance welcomes the MEC’s administrative intervention and the decision by the African National Congress to recall its council leadership. Our only question would be why, when everyone inside and outside the council knew the city was heading towards disaster, did the ANC take so long to grasp the nettle and act in the interests of good governance and the wellbeing of our provincial capital?

In analysing what went wrong and why, we need to go back to at least 2004 and the triumphalism that swept the ANC after its election victory in that national and provincial poll. Its senior politicians expressed themselves in unguarded moments with comments like “We didn’t wage the struggle to be poor”, or, “Now it is our turn to eat”, which reflected, at the very least, a desire for self-enrichment and not public service. These attitudes, when translated into public office, produced an unseemly jostling for the control of patronage and rewards.

Even before the 2006 local government elections, the gathering Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma factions were eyeing each other to see who was going to triumph in the elections. Since 2000, Msunduzi had been led by Hloni Zondi, but he was seen as an Mbeki loyalist. A coalition of anti-Zondi forces then emerged to seize all the top positions in the new 2006 council. Former councillors who had been out of office since 2000 combined with powerful district councillor Alpha Shelembe and the former deputy mayor Zanele Hlatshwayo. Former ANC stalwarts such as Osman Ganie departed, while Francis Grantham became the fourth former ANC councillor (after Thabani Zulu, Kevin Perumal and David Gengan) to be appointed to a senior administrative position. Cadre deployment was the name of the game.

The relationship between Hlatshwayo and Zulu soured rapidly, and soon became openly hostile. Having negotiated an exit strategy, Zulu departed to a senior position in provincial government. His farewell party represented a who’s who of the anti-Hlatshwayo faction. Rob Haswell was interviewed and duly appointed as municipal manager. Whatever expectations he and the mayor might have had for each other’s roles in government, their relationship was destined to end in mutual disappointment.

The new mayor also persuaded the then MEC for Local Government to institute a forensic inquiry into alleged maladministration in the municipality. Presumably certain political objectives motivated this request, but the investigators produced a report which accused a variety of officials of offences which included violating everything from the Municipal Finance Management Act to the Constitution. At the same time, the Scorpions swooped on the city hall looking for evidence of corruption — presumably another reason they had to be shut down. To date, no one has been charged with any offence as a consequence of the MEC’s forensic inquiry. The DA fought long and hard to keep the MEC’s report on the council agenda with constant demands on Haswell (when he was present) to update council on progress in the investigation.

By the end of 2007, the ANC was so divided that two acting municipal managers were appointed while Haswell was on leave, one by the mayor and one by the speaker and council. During 2008, the conflict moved to the council chamber when one half of the ANC voted with the opposition parties to defeat the other half at a council meeting. By then it was apparent that the ANC’s regional executive was running the council by remote control just as Luthuli House did for the country as a whole.

The question of the renewal of the Section 57 senior managers’ contracts also proved bitterly divisive and severely impacted on service delivery. The political battle among councillors was not about competence or performance so much as it was about who had supported which faction most in the past. Staff morale and productivity plummeted, while the ANC Exco caucus meetings became very vocal with public displays of disunity and enmity. The DA proposed that all the Section 57 contracts should run out and the posts be readvertised but this was eventually voted down by the ANC. After the 2009 election the issues were largely to do with financial mismanagement, allegations of irregular expenditure and an overtime bill that got totally out of hand. More and more senior staff either retired or relocated to better-run municipalities.

Given this history of political interference and division, the new administrator will have his hands full to restore staff morale, good governance and service delivery. The next election is fully a year away but residents know that the power of the vote lies with them. They voted the ANC into power and they can vote them out.

• Mark Steele is a member of the provincial Parliament.

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