Hands-on work by volunteers is all that’s keeping small towns afloat

Residents of small towns in South Africa who love their towns and want to see them functioning efficiently are doing whatever they can to save them from the ravages of ANC rule, and overpaid cadres who refuse to be held accountable for work they are supposed to do. In Modimolle-Mookgophong, for instance, voluntary groups have organised the municipal administration system, fixed potholes and regularly drive around in their personal bakkies and trailers to collect refuse in their wards. Read below to find out some frightening statistics. – Sandra Laurence

Respect for the magnificent citizens saving small-town South Africa

By Helen Zille*

For a rollercoaster experience that is simultaneously infuriating, depressing, exhilarating and inspiring, take an in-depth look at some of South Africa’s small towns.

The infuriating and depressing part is the chaos, decay, bankruptcy and destruction wrought by the ANC-cadres who control these administrations.

The exhilarating and inspiring part is the extent to which motivated citizens are stepping into the breach, voluntarily fulfilling functions the municipal administration is failing to deliver.

During the past week I spent time in Modimolle-Mookgophong, the new name for the amalgamated towns once known as Nylstroom and Naboomspruit in Limpopo.

When they were amalgamated in 2016, presumably to save costs, the ANC administrations refused to retrench a single person from the bloated staff establishments.

Instead of being grateful for having kept their jobs, however, many employees were angry that their grossly inflated salaries were adjusted to the average of the two towns for the relevant position. The attitude of those affected has, then, been one of malicious compliance.

A major challenge the DA faces when we take over an ANC administration, are the many unproductive and often unqualified cadres who fail to do their jobs. A significant number, often in senior positions, consider their access to procurement systems as a licence to extract as much as they can for themselves from the state — often to the point of obscene corruption. 

A visit to Modimolle-Mookgophong is a sobering experience for those of us who are accustomed to functional administrations in the towns where we live. The extent to which many residents are taking responsibility for fixing their town themselves is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

The town council comprises 14 ANC members, 7 DA, 4 EFF and 3 FF-plus.  The executive committee consists of 2 ANC members, 1 DA, 1 EFF and 1 FF-plus. That means there is a 14:14 divide between the ANC, on the one hand, and all opposition parties.

Despite being heavily outnumbered, the DA’s Marlene van Staden was elected mayor — by a coin toss following the 2021 election after an even split in the council’s vote.  The Speaker is ANC, with a casting vote in most council decisions. This means that to get any proposal through, Marlene has to seek consensus — an enormously challenging task. 

Inevitably, any attempt to introduce effective performance management in the administration is blocked. When any senior official tries to apply performance management, they are targeted and their lives are, literally, in danger. 

I was told about one acting municipal manager who was hit over the head in her office with a flower pot.  She has since retreated into her shell, saying and doing as little as possible, for fear of the consequences of actually holding staff accountable.

Marlene’s power to fix things are also systemically limited. She is not an executive mayor. She chairs an executive committee (on which is a minority of one). It is this committee, not the mayor, that takes executive decisions. Given the sharp ideological divisions, it is even difficult to reach agreement on a policy programme to fix the rot and take the municipality forward.

Despite this, the indefatigable mayor, with her boundless energy and enthusiasm, has achieved a great deal to fix the disaster she inherited after two decades of ANC rule.  It is a Herculean task.

The greatest challenge is undoubtedly the administration, largely dominated by ANC cadres — where internal conflicts have led to court actions that have prevented the appointment of a permanent municipal manager since 2018.

As in all administrations, there are some good, hard-working people, but they are usually bludgeoned into silence, as accountability systems collapse entirely.

Those who work hard soon stop doing so under pressure from others.  Hard workers are regarded as traitors or accused of “acting white”.  The much-vaunted notion of Ubuntu has degenerated into an enforced solidarity to protect the laziest, most corrupt and least productive from facing consequences.

Modimolle’s total revenue is R28-million and its salary bill is almost R20-million, which means there is hardly any budget to maintain infrastructure, let alone expand it.  The town’s accumulated debt to Eskom, over many years, is now almost R900-million.

Despite this crisis, most of the staff do whatever they can to avoid having to work during normal office hours, preferring to extend their tasks into “overtime” to earn the generous additional rates. They are only too happy to accept the salary increases negotiated for them by the SA Local Government Association (SALGA), which will cost the bankrupt municipality another R800,000 per month.

I was told of scams to sabotage equipment and infrastructure so that the municipality would be forced to hire trucks, water tankers, and sewage “honey-suckers” from politically-linked companies that allegedly offer generous kick-backs.

I heard of functional equipment being sold for scrap — so that new equipment could be hired, in another cadre enrichment scam. A culture of maintenance is all but non-existent.

DA councillors regularly drive around with bakkies and trailers to collect refuse in their wards, when the administrative staff fail to do so.

Then there are the extraordinary townsfolk. People like Erna Human who initiated “Aksie Opknap” (“Operation Fixit”), Sarie van den Berg, who started “Adopt-a-pothole” and Wiets Botes, who is greeted and welcomed everywhere because of his reputation for getting things done. He is also the candidate for the upcoming by-election in Ward 12, on 3 August.

DA councillor Antoinette Wagener started a non-profit organisation called “Friends of Modimolle-Mookgophong” to help the council get some of its basic administrative functions sorted out.

Antoinette told me her initiative started when she tried, in vain, to get her erf plan out of the municipality’s planning department, when she wanted to do some renovations.  She was told bluntly (but honestly) that her plans would never be traced because the filing system was in chaos. 

Undeterred, she mobilised a group of her friends (including Alta van Aswegen, an expert in filing systems) and formed a “non-profit” organisation called “Friends of Modimolle-Mookgophong”. 

She applied to the acting municipal manager for permission to come in and help fix things. Fortunately, permission was granted.

Antoinette showed me pictures that again moved me from the point of despair to one of profound respect and admiration for the work of these volunteers.

Take a look at what the “filing system” looked like when these women arrived at the office. Apart from the total filth in parts of the office, including the kitchen, to describe the situation as chaotic would be an understatement. The pictures below show what the planning department’s “filing system” looked like when the women arrived.

And below is a glimpse of the kitchen

The team got to work, undertaking the mammoth task of sorting every piece of paper into the correct file in a functional system, in which site plans could be traced for every erf in the town.

These are pictures of the women at work. They did the whole task entirely voluntarily, because they love their town and want it to function properly, while those who get paid to do it, do as little as they can get away with.  Which is often nothing, in the absence of proper performance management systems.

But this was not the only extraordinary things I witnessed.

In several places, volunteers were hard at work doing the maintenance the municipal workers are either unwilling or unable to do.

Marlene and her team donate from their own salaries, and also raise funds privately to pay the workers who assist the volunteers who undertake the town’s maintenance themselves.

Below is a photo of a Fibre Optic Company, MEGS, donating their time and labour to fill potholes. The company carries the cost of this work, which can add up to R25,000 per day including equipment, labour and tar. Herotel, an Internet Service Provider, often does the same.

And below are Van Waveren Plumbers, a private company, fixing a leaking pipe deep underground that the municipality has not repaired for a decade. The spare parts alone cost over R3,000.

Residents have also adopted sections of the town and are cleaning up outside public buildings, trying to restore them to their former functional state. 

This is small town South Africa. Residents who love their towns are doing whatever they can to save them from the ravages of ANC rule, and overpaid cadres who refuse to be held accountable for the jobs they are supposed to do.

One would hope they feel a deep sense of shame. But I doubt it. The thousands of free-loaders and rent-seekers are more likely relieved that someone else is doing the work, despite the fact that they are being over-paid to do so.

Despite the magnificent work done by volunteers in small towns across the country,  this is an unsustainable method of maintaining these towns in the long run. The term “Cry the Beloved Country” comes to mind. This famous aphorism remains valid in every South African generation — for different reasons.

In this generation it is the total failure of the so-called liberation party to serve any interest except its own.

It is time for voters everywhere to recognise they have the power to change this and vote for competent, committed, hard-working people to replace the indolent looters.

There is no time to lose. Because, as volunteers in some towns are learning to their horror, there comes a point of no return where the decay is so deep that it is impossible to reverse.

Fortunately Modimolle-Mookgophong can still be saved. Because of a dynamic mayor, a handful of DA councillors and a committed community compensating for dysfunctional administration.

  • Helen Zille is the DA Federal Council Chairperson.

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