Winnie Ndlovu, 78, has been living in Pietermaritzburg’s Sobantu township since the early 1960s. Her home is separated by the Msunduzi River from the New England Road landfill site.
“We have been fighting to have this dumpsite removed from the days of apartheid. When democracy was established, we hoped that our government would hear our grievances and remove this eyesore. But it is still here today. There are flies, mosquitoes and the filthy smell… You cannot even dream of dishing and entertaining your visitors. This place is a mess,” Ndlovu said.
“I’m not voting in this election. Why should I vote? What difference will it make? We have voted so many times but our lives remain the same, there is no change. We have nowhere to go,” said Ndlovu, a retired hospital supervisor.
Msizi Mdunge, 31, is one of thousands of waste pickers who go to the dumpsite to pick metals and other materials he sells to the scrapyard to make a meagre living. He matriculated from Silver Heights High School in Northdale. A lack of job opportunities, however, pushed him to be a waste picker.
“I don’t want [to do] what I am doing [because] people call me an iphara [a parasite]. When there are projects, people like me are not called on to work. We are sidelined. For me, too, there is no point of voting as I don’t foresee any change,” he said.
A failed municipality
Ndlovu and Mdunge are just two of countless disgruntled residents in Msunduzi Local Municipality who entered the final leg of the local government electioneering with trepidation and confusion. The municipality was placed under administration in April 2019 after ANC internal divisions plunged the council into a crisis. A municipality is placed under administration only when it cannot fulfil its obligations, when it no longer serves the people. An administrator is appointed to manage and oversee the day-to-day running of the municipality.
Despite residents lacking so many services, Msunduzi Local Municipality went ahead and approved a R27-million sponsorship deal with Premier Soccer League side Maritzburg United.
Nowhere is this state of chaos and dysfunction more palpable than in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of KwaZulu-Natal and the seat of the provincial government. The city prided itself on having a number of historic 19th-century face brick buildings. These are now derelict.
Roads have huge potholes and the city hall’s roof is missing. The Pietermaritzburg City Hall is no ordinary such civic building. It has a 47m-high tower and is said to be the largest brick building in the southern hemisphere. It took builders seven years to construct, from 1893 to 1900, and has hosted three of South Africa’s four Nobel Peace prize recipients: Inkosi Albert Luthuli, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former president Nelson Mandela.
Now, in its state of dilapidation, even its iconic clock no longer works. The main organ is damaged and has not been repaired. Faced by these calamities, the local ratepayers’ association raised funds to repair the leaking roof in a bid to save whatever historic artefacts and irreplaceable items remain.
However, the city hall is being stripped bare, including its copper roofing that was taken gradually yet city officials took no preventative action.
Outside of Durban, 36.8% of KwaZulu-Natal’s workers are unemployed, by the official count.There are no expanded figures available.
The ratepayers’ association is also helping to clean and to repair fencing of the Commercial Road Cemetery, which is also badly neglected.
Pietermaritzburg suffered immensely during the looting in July, which reportedly started as a protest against the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court.
The CBD saw the worst of the riots. Retailers and warehouses were cleaned out, and the city is yet to fully recover.
The situation has become so bad that residents from almost all the areas under the Msunduzi municipality banded together to form the Msunduzi Association of Residents, Ratepayers and Civics (MARRC). They aim to hold the municipality accountable and to provide much needed support to other associations affiliated to MARRC, so as to develop their capacity, knowledge and skills.
It was formed also to provide support for possible legal action against the municipality when necessary. It will, for example, litigate for the municipality failing to provide services to ratepayers.
Anthony Waldhausen, the chairperson of MARRC, said it has undertaken to repair the city hall, rehabilitate the cemetery, and mend roads and burst water pipes.
He said they have compiled a dossier detailing all the municipality’s failures, and intend sending it to President Cyril Ramaphosa in the hope he will intervene and help resolve the deadlock between municipality and residents.
“There are so many problems in Pietermaritzburg, I don’t even know where to start. We are paying one of the most expensive rates in the country, yet we are getting paltry services. The roads are bad and full of potholes, water pipes burst regularly and we stay for days without water. There are [also] constant electricity cut-offs because of cable theft and no maintenance of infrastructure,” Waldhausen said.
The Greater Edendale Ratepayers Association (GERA), is one of many community organisations in MARRC. Its chairperson is Zakhele Hlatshwayo, an academic. He said that in the 12 years since GERA was formed, it has been fighting against the same things, over and over. These include exorbitant and unaffordable municipal rates, water leaks, potholes, a lack of jobs and inadequate houses.
“Every time there is an election we are told, ‘Comrades, let’s vote first and we promise that we will deal with your issue after the election.’ But once the elections are over they forget about us. Even as these elections approaches, we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Also, this municipality has a lot of corruption, cadre deployment and nepotism. I wish there could be a skills audit here because people are placed in positions for which they have no qualifications. It is the gangster’s paradise or a den of criminals,” Hlatshwayo said.
Road to perdition
Renae Bhoodram, a 42-year-old small-business owner, said he has lived his whole life in Pietermaritzburg but has never felt this despondent when thinking about the future of his city and his family in it.
“It is not that we are hankering for the apartheid period but at one stage Pietermaritzburg was a beautiful city with good, lush gardens. Its buildings were world class. Look what it has become. Ratepayers are working very hard to pay rates. Surely they deserve to get services worth the money they are paying,” he said.
Msunduzi Local Municipality mayor Mzimkhulu Thebolla said since he took over in 2018 he has tried very hard to revive the fortunes of the municipality. Yet, it is under his leadership that the R27 million sponsorship to Maritzburg United was approved.
On the evening of Monday 25 October, Thebolla was hosted by Vuma FM’s current affairs programme where he fielded a number of questions. “There are many challenges facing us as a municipality but things have improved,” he said.
“When I first came in here I saw that the biggest challenge facing this municipality was stability. All the oversight committees were dysfunctional. We had to start from scratch to fix these. Key positions were vacant. Now we have filled these positions with competent people.
“When I came here, there were many people who were on suspension for years on full pay. While they were away, their work was performed by other people or not performed at all. This resulted in us getting flacks from the auditor general for irregular expenditure. Now we have sorted that out. We are not out of the woods yet but things are improving.”
But some residents are adamant that things are getting worse. Zodwa Kweyama, 49, the leader of Abahlali BaseMjondolo in the KZN midlands district, has been living in Jika Joe shack settlement in Pietermaritzburg for the past 23 years. She said the municipality is doing very little to improve the lives of the impoverished and marginalised.
A case in point, she said, is the chaos surrounding council flats built near Jika Joe recently. “According to the previous agreements between the residents and the municipality, this housing project was going to accommodate the people of Jika Joe. But, soon after they were completed, these flats were forcefully and illegally occupied by the so-called MK [Umkhonto weSizwe] veterans and people from other areas. We were left in the cold as there was no one from Jika Joe.
“There are so many other things that this municipality is doing which is suppressing our human rights. Even when there is a change at the top [of the municipal leadership], we are still feeling the brunt of an unfair, corrupt and inept system. We, as Abahlali and residents of Jika Joe, do not expect any change after these elections,” Kweyama said.