Durban’s central business district was a very, very ugly place this week.
Striking workers from the water and sanitation department had trashed the streets and overturned rubbish bins. They even offloaded trucks filled with solid waste in the city centre and created a traffic nightmare by blockading major arteries. Elsewhere they switched off reservoirs, leaving large parts of the city without water – including areas where the supplies had already been devastated by the recent storms.
Whatever one might think of the workers’ tactics, their grievances were legitimate. They had discovered that the Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) Veterans’ Association members, hired by the eThekwini municipality, had been placed in job grades much higher than the workers who were already in the system. This put their salaries at R20 000 instead of the R9 000 their colleagues were earning doing the same work.
The preferential employment of the ANC-aligned workers was done at the behest of mayor Zandile Gumede, undoubtedly one of the worst – some claim one of the most corrupt – heads of local government in South Africa. The employment of the MK vets, whom she forced on the city administration, was one of her many schemes designed to shore up her power and benefit herin other ways.
Gumede runs the city with little regard for rules and procedures and commands a lot of fear. As happens to all bullies and dictators, fear turns to loathing. She has become a figure of hate in the city. More people are standing up to her and defying her iron fist. The workers’ rampage was just part of this open rejection of her strongman tendencies.
As with all her type, Gumede likes to project another side. The municipality’s website has a glowing profile of her in which she is described as having had a strict and religious upbringing. The profile says she is a “proud uniform-wearing member” of the Methodist Church and an active member of its women group.
It says: “A family woman to the core, Gumede always spends her Christmas Day with her family and New Year’s Day with her in-laws. During her spare time, she enjoys listening to gospel music, Isicathamiya and traditional Zulu music. Her favourite food is spinach served with dry maize meal porridge, sweet potatoes and home-grown chicken.”
Okay, that last part was unnecessary but this lowly newspaperman felt it should be shared.
The metro has been plagued by scandal since Gumede took over as mayor. She had been disastrous in all her previous portfolios but excellent at populism and playing the political game. Her fingerprints have been all over most of the scandals – ranging from vanity projects that cost hundreds of millions to nepotist hires to contracts for comrades. The Wild West climate once even led to Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu withdrawing an audit team from the city because they received death threats.
Service delivery has gone through the floor. The metro has gone from being a future focused one to one battling decay.
All because, in its wisdom, the governing party decided to put a complex metro with a R46 billion budget in the hands of someone who barely surpasses Jacob Zuma’s literacy rates.
The saddest part is that there are many towns in this country that boast their own Zandile Gumedes. The people of Mthatha would say that their town had the most useless and corrupt leadership. Not so, the people of Mahikeng would answer, and even offer a wager that their town bosses were much worse. Then the people of other towns will pipe up until you had a cacophony.
Read: The mayor of graft: Hawks investigate eThekwini mayor
This contest will also apply when it comes to provincial government and state entities. As they say, it would be funny if it were not so tragic.
In a recent paper titled, eThekwini Municipality in a state of shamelessness, political analyst Xolani Dube could have been speaking about any city in South Africa when “the failure, fragility and dysfunction across the municipality are mostly the result of choices made by ANC R20 card-carrying members who are poorly politically educated, generally ill-informed and easily influenced”.
For much of his 14 months in power, President Cyril Ramaphosa has spoken about a new dawn and national renewal, but much of the focus has understandably gone into fixing broken national institutions. This is obviously a massive job that will require a gargantuan effort, especially since it is not about fixing bricks and mortar and governance systems. It is also about repairing morality.
But when you go to the towns and cities, the places where the Zandile Gumedes rule the roost, you will find public morality is in a state of decomposition. It is there that the most pain is inflicted on the people by greedy and power-hungry individuals. They run their towns like lords and have made sure they make corruption the norm so that dodgy people there are guzzling, the more they themselves are able to pour down their throats.
Gumede survived because people like her thrived in the Zuma ecosystem. The dysfunction in the governing party was perfect for people like her. She could have as much spinach served with dry maize meal porridge as she wanted. And much, much more.
There will be much for Ramaphosa to ponder between the election results and the inauguration. High up on his list should be how to free the people from the Zandile Gumedes of this world in an environment where their allies still have a big say in the dysfunctional party.