In South Africa, towns are imploding as water proves scarce and infrastructure suffers

As mismanagement and a lack of skills bite, the urban centres are not immune

T7DH1Y High Street looking towards the Cathedral of St Michael and St George, Grahamstown (Makhanda), Eastern Cape, South Africa. Alamy
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Makhanda, South Africa // The annual arts festival in the Eastern Cape town of Makhanda brings thousands of visitors and with them an influx of revenue to local business.

This year, the festival also brings water.

“The organisers have said we’d have enough water, at least for the week,” says Belinda Meyer, who runs a small bed and breakfast in the usually quiet town in the Eastern Cape province. “But don’t drink it. It’s not guaranteed to be clean and safe to drink. Stick to bottled water, even for teeth cleaning,” she adds.

Makhanda, formerly known as Grahamstown, has struggled to deliver basic services to its 70,000 residents for the past five years. Sewage runs freely in potholed streets and rubbish is everywhere. Feral donkeys wander unhindered among the 19th century houses and stone cathedrals that line the central village square.

“The donkeys belong to nobody,” says Xolani Mcibi, a local vendor setting up shop in the town square. “Before, the municipality would remove animals. Now they walk everywhere, digging in rubbish and making a mess in the streets.”

A random feral donkey in Makhanda. Gavin du Venage for The National

Townsfolk are limited to 50 litres of water a day, and those who can have installed rainwater tanks. Even Makhanda’s crown jewel, Rhodes University, was on the brink of closing its doors in February and sending students home because of the acute water shortage and the health hazard it presented.

They were saved by a South African Islamic disaster relief charity Gift of the Givers (GOG), which drilled bore holes and installed tanks around the campus. “The life blood of the economy is Rhodes University: if that shuts down the city shuts down,” GOG founder Dr Imtiaz Sooliman said in February.

GOG has helped following disasters around the world including the devastating Nepal earthquakes in 2015 and in the Philippines after hurricanes struck such as the 2013 Super Typhoon Haiyan. It is, therefore, both experienced and equipped to supply potable water. In May, however, GOG abruptly removed most of its equipment and left Makhanda.

“It was one of the hardest decisions we have ever had to make,” says Dr Sooliman, who set up the charity in the 1990s by sending volunteer doctors and field hospitals scrounged from the South African army to the conflict in Bosnia. But leaving Makhanda "was a matter of principle, we had no choice”, he says.

Although GOG’s aid to the town was not a business transaction, and the charity’s resources are limited, it had in effect stepped in to provide municipal services to the entire population. An agreement was reached that the local council would apply for disaster relief funds from the government and use this to fund the GOG's activities. Instead, the money that was granted was handed to three local "contractors" for work that GOG had done. Furious, Dr Sooliman and his team packed up and left.

“This is 10 million rand [Dh2.6m] of taxpayers' money handed out freely by the government to people as remuneration for work that we did,” he says. “Our hearts are with the people of Makhanda, the elderly, the women and children and everyone who waited so patiently for water but as a matter of principle we cannot continue.”

The town square where vendors are setting up in the shadow of 19th century cathedrals in Makhanda. in Makhanda. Gavin du Venage for The National

Makhanda’s troubles are hardly unique. Towns across South Africa are imploding. Even the urban centres are not immune. The mayor of eThekwini, which includes Durban port that handles more than 60 per cent of South Africa’s imports and exports, is out on bail pending a corruption trial. The eThekwini council itself is dominated by the African National Congress party that also runs the country. However, the council now is barely functioning.

Last week, Nicole Graham, the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance in the eThekwini council, summed up the situation on Twitter like this: “Today started with several ANC Councillors trying to physically attack the City Manager, and ended with the Acting Mayor apparently being poisoned. It’s a pity this is what it took, but I’m glad eThekwini is finally in the national spotlight. This city is in deep, deep trouble.”

The state auditor general’s office in June released a damning report that showed out of the 257 municipalities in South Africa, only 18 received a clean financial audit.

“The accountability and performance management continue to worsen in most municipalities,” auditor general Kimi Makwetu told parliament. Lack of compliance with accounting standards and dearth of skilled professionals contributed to the decline in services, he said.

Mr Makwetu noted that just 21 per cent of municipal governments had qualified engineers to build infrastructure projects. Almost 65 per cent did not have a chief financial officer with adequate account management training. As a result, many local authorities were in debt and owed a total of nearly 140 billion rand for municipal services to state utilities such electricity provider Eskom.

The steady decline in services and infrastructure is now hurting business’ ability to operate, says , Alan Mukoki, the chief executive of the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Businesses operate at a local level, even if they are national companies; their manufacturing centres, their logistics centres are at the municipal level. There is no way to run a business when the electricity, water and roads are not functioning.”

The impact of ill financial health of local municipalities and their mismanagement has a profound impact on businesses, both large and small.  The largest poultry producer in the country, Astral, which has a market capitalisation of 6.7bn rand, has halved production at its processing plant because of water supply interruptions at the Lekwa municipality in Mpumalanga.

Premier Foods, another major producer, has warned it will need to shut bakeries in several centres around the country because of municipal infrastructure problems.

The infrastructure breakdown is also costing lives. In May a long-distance bus barrelled into a roundabout in the Free State province town of Welkom. Eight passengers were killed and the distraught driver, who survived without injury, hanged himself from a nearby tree. Travelling overnight, a lack of functioning streetlights made it difficult for the bus driver to see the road, police said.

It is unclear if the government is entirely aware of the extent of the problem. During his annual state of the nation address late last month, the president of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa said plans were being made to modernise infrastructure.

“I dream of a South Africa where the first entirely new city built in the democratic era rises, with skyscrapers, schools, universities, hospitals and factories,” he said in parliament.

The country's Treasury has also just published new municipal cost containment regulations that, among other measures, ban the use of credit cards by local officials and councillors. This is intended to assuage public anger at reports that municipal officials use these cards for personal expenses.

Last year, for instance, in a widely publicised scandal that infuriated the public, the manager of the Enoch Mgijima municipality in the Eastern Cape, one of the poorest towns in the province, spent 90,000 rand on Kentucky Fried Chicken in just two days. This same municipality had, a few months previously, been forced to sell assets including its fire brigade vehicles and refuse trucks over unpaid debts to contractors.

Now, the Ramaphosa administration hopes to rein in some of these excesses. However, for people like Mrs Meyer in Makhanda, self-reliance is the key to remaining in business.

“Nothing’s going to change or improve anytime soon. We’ll have to keep relying on our own water tanks, and eventually our own electricity. We’ll probably have to grow our own food soon.”

The town square where vendors are setting up in the shadow of 19th century cathedrals in Makhanda. in Makhanda. Gavin du Venage for The National