Municipal mayhem

There are few six-syllable words in the English language that fill one with more despair and contempt than the word “municipality”. Not in every country, obviously. There are parts of the world where people don’t start sighing, swearing or laughing when they hear the word spoken aloud.

Growing up in Durban, a career with the municipality never crossed my mind. Frankly, a career in anything never really occurred to me until fairly late in life. Back then, white people were guaranteed a position in the municipality. It’s where you went if you didn’t know what you wanted to do but your parents were threatening to put you in a wheelchair if you didn’t get a job and move out of the house.

I had friends who worked for the council. I didn’t think any less of them. That would have been impossible. I never understood what any of them did because my eyes glazed over the moment they began explaining. I do remember asking, “But isn’t it boring?”

Things have changed a fair bit since then. If you have a friend who works for the Durban municipality today, you are far more likely to ask, “But isn’t it dangerous?”

Not too long ago someone tried to poison the acting mayor. This was after the actual mayor, Zandile Gumede, was suspended by the ANC. Not, as you might imagine, by her ankles from the Connaught bridge. That sort of punishment will come later, once the rule of law has been completely obliterated. We’re still at the gnawing-away stage.

When I had the chance to work for the Durban city council, Sybil Hotz was mayor. I don’t remember her at all. Then again, I had just returned from two years in the army where I learnt how to kill, drink and get high. It’s surprising I could find my way home at the end of it all. I might not have if there hadn’t been a functioning railway system. I googled Mayor Hotz to refresh my memory. It seems she’s best known for having opened the Umgeni Bird Park.

Only three out of 61 municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal got clean audits in 2020/21.

To be fair, municipalities across the country are struggling. Not only to lower the bar set by mayors like Gumede and incumbent Mxolisi Kaunda, but to get people to pay them for services allegedly rendered. Ordinary people like you and, well, you, owe our 257 municipalities tens of billions in unpaid rates, services and traffic fines.

There are municipalities, mainly in Limpopo, that ask job applicants, “Are you or have you ever been a gangster?” If you respond in the affirmative, many will hire you on the spot. Smart, industrious individuals with a clearly defined criminal bent are highly sought after in the civil service. So why, then, are so many municipalities battling to get people to pay up?

If there’s one thing gangsters know, it’s debt recovery. They need to be given free rein to express their creativity. Employees are wasted sitting behind their desks idly committing minor fraud and whatnot. Encourage them to get out into the fresh air. Thuma mina. With a baseball bat. You might even find Discovery Health will want to include it on their rewards programme.

Over 60 municipalities are collecting less than half the revenue owed to them. The rate of collection at dozens of municipalities can’t even be ascertained, presumably because nobody answers the phone and there’s a rabid dog at the gate.

When I was a kid, a girl from down the road borrowed 50 cents from me. In today’s terms, that’s, like, R50 000. When the end of the week came, I went over to her house to collect on the loan. She laughed and said she’d break my arm rather than pay me back. As a compromise, she offered to show me what makes girls different to boys. Best return on investment ever.

Municipalities owe water boards R14 billion and, in turn, water boards owe the water department R6.7 billion. It’s the same with Eskom. The government itself owes billions to municipalities and they, in turn, owe the government billions. I really don’t understand what’s going on here. Aren’t they all members of the same gang? It’s like a massive money-laundering pyramid scheme run by the most disorganised crime network in the world.

Point is, it’s essential that municipalities collect the debt they are owed. Stealing is only sustainable if supply keeps pace with demand. And, man, the demand out there for free money is second to none. Municipalities go bankrupt when plundering outstrips income and bailouts. It’s basic accounting, a subject I got 9% for in Grade 10 – which goes a long way towards explaining my current situation.

It gets more complicated. Municipalities also owe creditors billions of rands. If you live in the Free State and your local council owes you money, don’t even bother ringing the bell. A neighbour will have been paid to say they’ve all gone to a funeral. You might glimpse the twitch of a curtain as you drive away. That’s if the curtains haven’t been stolen.

Several municipalities have run out of money entirely and are in overdraft. They are, in the desperate parlance of the most ignored person in public office, the Auditor-General, in a state of distress and close to collapse. We have all been there, mostly on a Saturday night, but, unlike municipalities, we can’t blame the sponging class or cadre deployment for our appalling behaviour.

Thirty-three municipalities were so dysfunctional they were put under administration. The good news is that the Free State once again met its targets by becoming the only province, for the fifth year running, to record not a single clean audit. Can’t fault them for consistency.

Municipalities in the North-West – also without a single clean audit – spent R238 million on “consultants”, which explains a spending spree that saw 42% of procurement worth billions being declared irregular. My kind of consultant. Spend as much as you like on whatever you want. There won’t be consequences.

Standing upwind from the others, awkwardly shuffling their goody-two-shoes and trying not to look overly righteous, are 41 municipalities that got clean audits. Coming as a surprise to exactly no one, 22 of them are in the Western Cape. The other 216 fly-blown councils remain curled up in the foetal position whimpering, “Go away. It wasn’t me.”

Here’s a final fun fact. Two out of three municipalities filed financial statements and performance reports so unintelligible and flawed that they might as well have been scrawled in Aramaic on Wimpy serviettes.