Small-town residents join hands in tyre burning

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

Far away from Sandton and Constantia, the water does not flow and dinner by candlelight is a nightly affair. From Moneyweb.

When supporters from the EFF, the ANC, DA and FF+ join forces to express their discontent, it’s clear there’s a problem. Image: Ayanda Ndamane, African News Agency/RealTime Images via Reuters
When supporters from the EFF, the ANC, DA and FF+ join forces to express their discontent, it’s clear there’s a problem. Image: Ayanda Ndamane, African News Agency/RealTime Images via Reuters

One has to marvel at the resourcefulness of South Africans grown accustomed to life without running water and with candles as a source of light.

They seem to get on with life as best they can, with private contractors stepping in to remove refuse bags for a small fee, and farmers trucking in borehole water to towns like Bethal in Mpumalanga.

Where local government has all but given up, private enterprise fills the void.

Three weeks ago, angry residents of Bethal and nearby eMzinoni in Mpumalanga – black and white – expressed their outrage over power outages lasting up to 12 hours a day by burning tyres and blocking entrances to the town. You know you have a problem when the EFF, ANC, DA and FF+ supporters join in the tyre burning.

Political alignments discarded

Political alignments are discarded in times of crisis, and local businesses have been stepping into the role government promised to fill during lockdown, by providing food parcels to the poor.

Bethal resident Michelle Rademeyer has run a soup kitchen for years, but never has it been more needed than this year, during lockdown. Her notable soup kitchen helped many of the poorest in this agricultural town avert starvation.

“A lot of people would like to move to other towns like Secunda, which are not as badly run, but rental costs there are higher,” she says. She will stay and continue running her catering business in Bethal, relying on gas and batteries to make it through the dark nights.

Read: Is this the future of small town South Africa?

Residents of Bethal, which falls under the Govan Mbeki Municipality, have complained of up to four power outages a day. Residents say the load shedding is not the fault of the municipal manager, but of Eskom’s ‘maximum notification demand’, where the lights are switched off when electricity usage exceeds a predetermined cap.

And when the lights go out, the water pumps and cellphone signals stop working.

“Buy a generator,” was the advice given by a Govan Mbeki Municipal call centre operator to one resident asking when the power would come back on. Refuse remains uncollected for the last three weeks, and many of the poor in nearby eMzinoni are living on bread, if they can afford it, says Rademeyer.

Written campaigns don’t work …

Tyre burning seems to get the attention of local authorities far more effectively than letter-writing campaigns. The protesters were threatened with arrest if they continued – which they did, at least for a few days.

The Govan Mbeki municipal manager was suspended recently by the executive mayor for apparently doing a poor job, but Rademeyer isn’t so sure. “I think the municipal manager Felani Mndebele was the one person here who was trying to do something to improve conditions….”

However Mayor Thandi Ngxonono is apparently sticking to her story that the municipal manager is to blame for the “poor service delivery” – a clichéd obloquy for failed municipalities.

When local governance has broken down, the finger-pointing starts.

Dangerous territory

Last year in Mogalakwena municipality in Limpopo, two local ANC leaders, Valtyn Kekana and Ralph Kanyane, were apparently executed after investigating alleged corruption. Kekana was chair of the municipal public accounts committee and was shot in a crowded taxi rank hours after tabling a report into corruption in the municipality, which was declared by the Auditor-General (AG) to be one of the worst in the country after running up R1.1 billion in irregular spending. Residents were outraged at the killings and many believed it came from a rival faction within the municipality. Many are calling for the mayor to be removed.

Two years ago the AG pulled his staff out of Emfuleni, south of Joburg, when one of his auditors was shot. Some go about their work with police escorts.

Read: AG: How to improve the state of our municipalities

One mayor of an ANC-run municipality, who shall remain nameless, told us of receiving a visit from local mafia businessmen within days of assuming her position.

The purpose of the visit was to ensure that the corrupt contracts under the previous administration would remain in place.

Like many other mayors battling corruption-infested administrations (they do exist), she seldom moves without bodyguards.

Corruption creep

A million miles from Sandton and Constantia, many rural municipalities have become orphanages for discarded cadres who couldn’t make it on the national stage.

It’s time, says Ratings Afrika analyst Leon Claassen, to replace the cadres with professional managers and implement systems that have proven themselves workable in many parts of the country. It will be a slow and painful path back to solvency, but there is no other option.

Read: Other than in the Western Cape, municipalities are failing miserably

Survey after survey repeats the same mantra. Quality of life where it really counts, at the local level, is degenerating. Says Rodger Ferguson, former Cope parliamentary researcher: “The state of governance at the municipal level is 10 times worse than it is at provincial or national level. In just about every municipality you’ll find a symbiotic relationship between the local political gatekeeper and some external Gupta-like groups.”

In the Greater Tzaneen Local Municipality, water and power outages are the primary concern for local residents. The dams in many parts have run dry and potholes have gone unrepaired for years. At the stroke of a pen, Maruleng Municipality in Limpopo changed property valuation rates from agriculture to commercial as a way of bumping up revenue. It’s a tactic that many municipalities will be considering as a means of financial salvation. The problem is getting residents to pay at a time of grinding economic depression.

What to do?

Ferguson has spent the better part of 20 years researching ways to improve local government, and even he seems to be consumed by apathy.

“I’d hate to be an official in local government today,” he says. “You either capitulate to the crooks or you get hounded out.”

He recounts his time as a municipal government advisor in Kwazulu-Natal and intersecting with corruption at the local level. “I’d be driving down the road and a bakkie with tinted windows would pass by and I would cringe, expecting a bullet to fly through the window.”

Ferguson believes local governance is getting worse, especially now that National Treasury is under huge financial pressure. During lockdown it allocated R20 billion for local government bailouts, but this tap will eventually run dry.

Citizen Satisfaction Index

The latest South African Citizen Satisfaction Index survey conducted by Consulta looks at eight metros and finds Cape Town has the best citizen satisfaction rating for the seventh year in a row.

“Overall, the results show that citizens’ expectations of local government delivery of services are very far from being met, with a particular concern around the trend in the widening of the gap of expectations to quality,” says Ineke Prinsloo, head of customer insights at Consulta.

A major contributor to the below-par performance is the negative perception of reliability of services.

“Citizens’ expectations are increasing, and the index’s year-on-year decline points to an increasing dissatisfaction with the perceived decline in quality in service delivery.”

What are citizens’ main concerns? Water and electricity supply, refuse removal, unkempt streets and billing.

Precisely the services that municipalities are supposed to deliver.

Ciaran Ryan

The Writer's Room is a curated by Ciaran Ryan, who has written on South African affairs for Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Financial Mail, Finweek, Noseweek, The Daily Telegraph, Forbes, USA Today, Acts Online and, among others. In between he manages a gold mining operation in Ghana, and previously worked in Congo. Most of his time is spent in the lovely city of Joburg.