At last, judicial focus on corruption in Durban

Durban mayor Zandile Gumede and her cronies present accumulating private wealth from the public purse as “radical economic transformation”.

The arrest of Zandile Gumede, the mayor of the eThekwini Municipality, has shifted national attention to Durban. The city was central to the rot that spread through the ruling party during Jacob Zuma’s years in the presidency. Zuma was leveraged into the presidency by a campaign primarily organised from ANC structures in Durban by John Mchunu, the late chairperson of the party in the city. Mchunu, described by the Mail & Guardian as a “Chicago-mob kind of character” was a hard man, and the corruption that flourished in the city after Zuma won the presidency was accompanied by brazen political repression, including regular assassinations.

In recent years, repression has worsened and corruption has become ever more blatant. Gumede’s arrest is in relation to a R208 million waste disposal contract, but there’s a raft of other allegations swirling around the mayor. She has repeatedly been linked to the Delangokubona SA Business Forum in media reports. Often referred to as a “mafia organisation”, Delangokubona has become notorious for showing up at major construction projects with heavily armed men threatening violence and demanding large fees, usually said to be 30% of the total value of the project, in return for allowing work to proceed.

Delangokubona, like the mayor and her allies, as well as Zuma and his supporters, present the accumulation of private wealth from the public purse as “radical economic transformation”. But the mayor’s most bitter enemies in the city have long been found among the organisations that represent the city’s poorest residents – shack dwellers, street traders and flat dwellers.

Turning against ‘mafia mayor’

Recently, many municipal workers have also turned against the mayor. Last month, workers protested after allegations emerged that 55 supporters of the mayor, who claimed to be Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans, had been employed on preferential terms, including getting vastly better salaries than other workers.

During the strike, police fired stun grenades and arrested 31 people. The strikers lit fires and dumped mounds of rubbish and debris on arterial roads. On the whole, the civic response to this disruption was surprisingly muted, indicating a degree of public empathy for the strikers. Many residents simply took their own garbage to dump sites.

Also last month, Zandile Sithole, the municipality’s deputy head of supply chain management, returned to her position after being suspended in 2017 amid claims of kickbacks from companies with municipal contracts. A media report quoted the Hawks confirming that she faced charges relating to contravening the supply chain management policy, code of conduct and the Municipal Systems Act. Last week the city confirmed charges against her still stood, but said she had to be allowed back to work (in a different role) because the indefinite suspension was unfair.

Sithole’s initial disciplinary hearing at the council was disrupted by members of the Federation for Radical Economic Transformation, who stormed the venue claiming she was a champion of transformation. Following the aborted hearing, the city’s head of the legal unit, Gideon Phungula, was fired for allegedly trying to manipulate the hearing. According to various reports, there is a leaked telephone recording in which Phungula allegedly plotted to remove a senior legal counsel in favour of appointing a junior lawyer to ensure Sithole was reinstated.

A report in the Mail & Guardian says the recording reveals Phungula talking of “severe pressure” from mayor Gumede and councillors to ensure that Sithole got off the hook. He also apparently said there was similar pressure from Delangokubona.

Violent intimidation

Last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa slammed Delangokubona, describing it as engaging in “radical economic robbery” rather than transformation. He called for law enforcement to crack down. Numerous court interdicts have been obtained against Delangokubona without resulting in any decline in open extortion. Armed and often violent intimidation frequently trumps the law and established processes in Durban. In May last year, Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu withdrew an audit team from Durban after they received death threats.

In August last year, Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack dwellers’ movement that claims an audited membership of more than 55 000 in the city, announced that its president, S’bu Zikode, had gone underground after receiving credible warnings of an imminent assassination.

Nathi Nkwanyana, a senior municipal official, is currently in hiding. Last year his son died in a hail of bullets – a hit meant for him. Nkwanyana is a senior revenue protection official who took issue with a proposed R30 million settlement the city offered to a company with political affiliations.

Nkwanyana had blacklisted Daily Double Trading, trading as Pholobas Projects, a company with electricity contracts. He was suspended on trumped-up disciplinary charges after the company launched legal action against the council claiming R44 million in damages for the blacklisting. A month later, Nkwanyana’s 23-year-old son Ntuthuko was gunned down in the driveway of their New Germany home in what his father said in court papers was a hit aimed at him.

“[Ntuthuko] had no known enemies. He resembles me in height and build,” Nkwanyana wrote in court papers. Nkwanyana said Pholobas was understaffed and overbilling. After his suspension, the city began to negotiate a settlement with the company for R30 million.

In August last year, lawyers acting for the city and the company tried to persuade High Court Judge Johan Ploos van Amstel in chambers to make the R30 million settlement an order of the court.

The judge refused and directed lawyers to disclose who in the city authorised the deal. The company quickly withdrew the bid, and Nkwanyana applied to personally intervene in the case saying Pholobas Project owner Joseph Ngcobo was known to have “political affiliations”.

“The murder of my son had the purpose of silencing me forever. I might not survive this matter,” Nkwanyana said. “I have given instructions that evidence in my possession be taken under commission, so at the very least the truth will prevail in the event of my untimely and unnatural demise.”

Unions get involved

For people like Jaycee Ncanana, the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) provincial organiser in KwaZulu-Natal, the mayor’s arrest and the fragile truce negotiated to temporarily end the strike are part of a wider malaise. Samwu’s 11 000 members represent almost half the 25 000 people employed by the eThekwini Municipality, and the union is waiting on council to explain how people claiming to be MK members got increases not offered to other workers or for the salaries of their peers to be brought in line with the 55 veterans.

Samwu has historical ties with the ANC. Ncanana said the issue of MK veterans and Delangokubona enjoying favour had been “raised politically”, but said he wasn’t at liberty to say what was discussed and with whom. All municipalities should be investigated forensically, he said.

“Dig deeper … regardless of who is in power, I assure you, you will find wrongdoing. The national government has a mammoth task putting things in order. Residents are protesting. They understand what is happening, but there are no forums to raise things. And in KZN, those who raise things and tell the truth are permanently removed. You end up having to toe the line or not. If you expose most of these things then the soil is ready for you. That is the consequence of exposing corruption.”

Verushka Memdutt, secretary of the Market Users Committee, which represents 3 000 street traders in the city, says she has no confidence in Gumede. Her organisation tried for almost a year to secure a meeting with the mayor but was blocked at every turn. Eventually, they marched to City Hall to get her attention, but Gumede stayed in her office.“It speaks to her ability to lead. The capacity to engage is vital. I have no faith in her leadership.”

Abahlali baseMjondolo is even more strident in its condemnation of Gumede. Provincial chairperson Mqapheli Bonono “welcomed the arrest of the gangster mayor of Durban”. Abahlali, he said, was not surprised: “Corruption in Durban has become brazen and was supported by thuggery. Eventually the state had to act.” Abahlali slated what it called “gangster politicians and mafias”, who ran cities to enrich themselves.

“When we speak out about corruption and the looting of state resources we face death threats, arrests, assault, torture and assassination. The ANC makes it clear that for as long as they are in power only their members will receive services and that no member of our movement should expect to receive access to services or housing.”

Bonono added: “We call on the ANC to immediately fire Gumede from her position as mayor … she has become a disgrace.”

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