Supra Mahumapelo. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ SIMON MATHEBULA
Supra Mahumapelo. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ SIMON MATHEBULA

The North West is, apart from platinum mining, an economic lightweight.

It does not have population heft through concentrated metropolitan clusters and there is little to no manufacturing presence. The area is largely rural and hugely impoverished, depends almost entirely on agriculture for its sustenance and seldom features in the news.

Which is why decades of corruption and mismanagement in the province have largely gone unnoticed. Former premier Supra Mahumapelo was able to rule by decree. Tenders and government contracts were handed to friends without any intervention, and the North West hit the news only when people occasionally died from drinking the dirty water supplied by their municipalities.

For a decade there have been half-hearted and sporadic attempts to fix problems. Section 139 of the constitution and section 137 of the Municipal Finance Management Act allow for an external administrator to take over local governance. In the case of the North West, this intervention has backfired spectacularly.

“A lot of these administrators come to us from previous positions where they have failed,” says Reginald Kanyane, editor of the small but influential Taung Daily News.

“They are not competent enough to tackle complicated problems, they confuse officials and employees who don’t know who to report to, and they are seen as arriving simply to loot some more. The province just goes from bad to worse.”

The governance problems besetting the North West started making headlines only in April,  due to weeks of rioting that left several people dead and caused billions of rand of damage to property and infrastructure. Residents wanted Mahumapelo to be fired, citing enormous corruption. It took weeks of negotiation before the premier agreed to step down, and the new premier, Job Mokgoro, was seen as a compromise candidate with some administrative skill and some neutrality.

A “technical team” was appointed by the provincial government, under the department of planning, monitoring & evaluation.

This team reported to an interministerial task team, headed by minister in the presidency Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, that answered in turn to an ad hoc committee in the National Council of Provinces. The teams found, unsurprisingly, a slew of problems such as poor governance, skills shortages, incompetence, corruption, irregular supply chain management, nepotism, factionalism and a stunning lack of accountability.

Of the 22 municipalities, eight have been placed under administration. Twenty are unable to balance their books. Irregular expenditure over the past two years has ballooned from R8.6bn to R15.3bn.

For residents, governance has ground to a halt. For decades, water supply has been bedevilled by corrupt councillors who sabotage water pumps to get water-trucking tenders. Sewerage plants have collapsed and spill millions of litres of raw sewage into rivers and streams. Roads are more pothole than tarmac. Constant power failures have shuttered most small businesses, and larger businesses have relocated to the cities.

“Dysfunction” is a mild term to describe the state of local municipalities. The latest blow, which might be terminal, is the revelation that North West municipalities invested a reported R314m in the failed VBS Bank in contravention of the Municipal Finance Management Act. The money, taken mostly from infrastructure grants from the Treasury, is allegedly irrecoverable. Six mayors were fired in the fallout — four because of the investment and two due to poor governance. All six have indicated that they will challenge their dismissals, blaming a factional purge.

The North West legislature committee on local government is doubtful that any of the current interventions will have a positive impact.

“The department’s oversight initiatives such as these interventions are not improving financial and administrative conditions of municipalities and there is general lawlessness,” said committee chair Motlalepula Rosho.

All North West municipalities suffer from continuous water and electricity shortages, lack of refuse removal, the collapse of sewerage plant management, neglect of roads and other municipal infrastructure, inefficient and corrupt administration, lack of skills and the fallout from factionalism.

But perhaps Maquassi Hills is worse off than most.

“It is all about political in-fighting,” says DA caucus leader Don van Zyl. “We lost our municipal manager in May 2017 because his contract expired. Since then we have tried to appoint a new municipal manager, but all our attempts have been stopped by factions.”

An acting municipal manager, Janet Rudman, was installed, but an administrator appointed by the province fired her and installed someone else. 

“Rudman took him to court to get reinstated and won the case, as he did not have the authority to appoint his own official. But he refused to acknowledge this. So we have two municipal managers. It has created havoc because the workers do not know who is in charge.

“As a result, two municipal unions have gone on strike. All council offices have been closed [for]  four weeks. No-one can pay bills, get vehicle clearance, submit plans, get any permits. The economic activity of the town has ground to a halt. We have load shedding.

"Essential services have ceased. We have been notified that our water supply has been restricted because the municipality owes Sedibeng Water R160m. And we have been warned that …  the frustrated public is going to start burning municipal buildings. We are hoping to appease them by getting the workers to come back to work.”

The crisis in Maquassi Hills seems to have jolted political factions into putting aside their differences.  The council has scheduled a full meeting for Friday, with promises of full attendance and no walk-outs.

The municipal manager appointed by the administrator resigned on Thursday in an attempt to clear the logjam of two people in charge.

“The state of the municipalities is very bad,” says Cosatu provincial secretary Job Dliso. “We have been calling for meetings with the premier … but we only ever meet over local issues. Promises are made in different areas, and over different problems, but none of these promises are kept. We do not want a piecemeal solution anymore, this needs to be dealt with holistically.” 

The North West provincial government does not appear to have any answers. An interview scheduled with the MEC for local government and human settlements did not take place.

The national department of co-operative governance & traditional affairs could not immediately comment on an alternative plan for the province.