Smoke and mirrors

2011-08-10 00:00

PLACING the Msunduzi Municipality under administration is beginning to appear like a case of smoke and mirrors: nothing more than a public relations exercise in the build-up to the 2011 election.

What has happened at the city hall is symptomatic of the factionalism within the ANC. The root of the problem at Msunduzi was the rift between the former mayor, Zanele Hlatshwayo, and the speaker, Alpha Shelembe. Going after the officials has been a pointless exercise and a waste of money. Disciplinary hearings have seemingly gone nowhere, suspended officials have resigned and there is a lack of evidence, according to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to prosecute municipal manager, Rob Haswell.

It’s time to stop playing games and acknowledge that it was a political power struggle that brought the municipality to its knees. It’s time to move on putting systems in place to ensure that what happened in the past never happens again. The problem, say city hall insiders, is that the witch-hunt to find culprits among the staff has led to a state of paralysis where no one is prepared to do anything in case they end up being suspended.

From past Witness reports, which have documented the woes at Msunduzi, it is clear that there were two centres of power. One was based in the mayor’s office and the other in the speaker’s office. The result was that two new and separate financial votes were established in which each office was allocated and managed its own budget which ran into the millions.

This was the start of money being spent unnecessarily with the refurbishment of offices. Computers and furniture were bought. Monies were also spent on lots of meetings. The speaker would have his large ward committee gatherings and the mayor her imbizos — each aimed at growing their power base within communities. Take, for example, an imbizo held in Eastwood in a fancy tent: the municipal hall that could have housed the meeting was just a stone’s throw away. These large gatherings meant that money was spent on tents, décor, chairs and, of course, massive catering bills. With little or no financial controls and each office getting its own quotes for services, it could well have happened that inflated prices were paid for many of the services provided. The result was more money was being spent than was being collected by the municipality’s billing and finance system.

The one area that the turnaround team did get right was to identify massive electricity theft in the city and non-payment for municipal services. The problem is that it did not go far enough. What was needed far more than the cowboy approach of Operation Pitbull to collect these monies, was a thorough analysis of the debt and a more systematic approach. In its quest for revenue, it seems that businesses were offered write-offs. In other words, pay so much and the rest will be written off. This approach seems to have created its own problems. A result is that members of the Pitbull team like AJ Beharie and Terry Scheffermann are currently on suspension, while the contract of leader of Pitbull and turnaround team member Ben Dorfling has not been renewed.

City hall insiders say an area crying out for investigation is the electricity theft within the city, as this could not have happened without collusion from municipal staffers. Such an investigation would help root out rotten apples and put systems in place to ensure that it does not happen again.

There was also massive expenditure on overtime and the lack of will to bring it under control. There was the awarding of questionable tenders like the smart meter contract, which, if recent revelations by the former Deputy Mayor, Mervin Dirks, prove correct, was driven more by factional interest than the real needs of a cash-strapped municipality.

With all of this, a witch-hunt among the staffers seems something of a pointless exercise when the political players have walked away. What is required now is for the administrator and his turnaround team to get down to the nitty gritty of getting the different units within the municipality working. The next press briefing at city hall, which should happen sooner rather than later, should be one that announces a competent management team: a new municipal manager and chief financial officer who inspire confidence and who do not end up becoming useful idiots playing to the ambitions of city hall’s political leaders.

The administrator and his team need to put systems in place that allow for even, rather than erratic, service delivery. They need to address staff morale and get critical areas like electricity theft and debt collection under control. It’s time to stop the smoke and mirrors. Otherwise placing the municipality under administration may yet be another pointless exercise.

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