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Councils, corruption and water failure

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Read Paddy Hartdegen’s thoughts on this matter.

Some newspaper reports over the past few weeks have suggested that the water supply crisis in Madibeng is behind the needless deaths of several residents in different townships.  Being pedantic it’s quite obvious that it’s not the water shortage but the people’s behaviour that led to those deaths, but let’s put that aside for a moment.



The latest allegations are that the water pumps in the town were deliberately sabotaged. The claim is based on the fact that if water doesn’t flow to the taps then various contractors who bought water tankers and now run them, can keep making money to distribute water on behalf of the council. That the owners of the water tankers are apparently councillors exacerbate the problem and fuels township anger.

This allegation is quite possibly true because people do strange things – and behave in strange ways – when their money-making is threatened.

Thandi Modise – North West’s Premier – tried to resolve the tender fraud impasse by appointing three senior members of the provincial legislature (MPL) to look into the alleged fraud.  However, the protestors say those same councillors are the ones who own the water tankers and sabotaged the pumps in the first place.  Rumour, conjecture, suspicion and anger swells up into the appalling behaviour that resulted in four dead and countless more injured.

To complicate matters, Modise said that the task team – after water shortages lasting more than three years – is now looking into the implementation of the recommendations of a ministerial task team’s report into maladministration and fraud within the council.  The obvious question:  why has it taken three years to act on evidence of graft?

Madibeng councillors have fleeced millions from the people and put it into their own pockets yet they are still employed, are still making money and are still, supposedly, working for the ‘good’ of the community.  Doesn’t sound much good to me.

In an almost knee-jerk reaction – as though this might appease someone – Modise added that R2-billion has been set aside to deliver water reliably to the people of North West and while they are about it, improve sanitation as well.  Three years, R2-billion and more lucrative contracts for the few who ‘qualify’?

Clearly there are problems that go much deeper than the pure allegation of pump sabotage. Fixing broken pumps is easy and any engineer will tell you that.  Dealing with the bigger problem of human behaviour isn’t.

Human behaviour, poverty, violent protests, looting, property damage, road and infrastructure destruction, theft and mutiny are complex and difficult to resolve in an impoverished community that expresses its hopelessness through violence.

Infrastructure development doesn’t resolve job shortages, poverty or hopelessness. Spending money on fixing pumps, pipes and toilets treats the symptoms, not the cause.

Employing people to dig trenches, lay pipes and fill in the holes might be a better – albeit temporary – solution.  Labour is always needed on a building site and, paying for that labour, is fundamental.  So some people might get temporary jobs to dig holes, lay pipes and fill in holes.  However, as soon as people are employed, the community itself rebels, anyway, claiming the selection processes were rigged.

So what we are seeing, really, is a huge lack of faith among community members about the administrators themselves and their ability to deliver anything without being corrupt in one way or another.  This is deeply dangerous, horrifically difficult to deal with and virtually impossible to change.

How do you get large groups of people – who openly and widely mistrust you – to believe that what you’re doing is good?  How do you expect them to believe the processes and methods are fair and unbiased?

How do you expect them to believe the administrators are incorruptible when corruption is endemic?

The short answer is you don’t.

Just as the short answer to the more than 13 000 protests – almost all of them in the guise of a lack of service delivery – in the past few years have shown just how little credibility local authorities have left today.

To compound this, massive corruption within the police force itself has meant there is widespread mistrust of law enforcement throughout South Africa.  We are living between a rock (corruption and mistrust) and a hard place (complete lack of credibility) right now.

That’s a recipe for chaos in any society, particularly one as volatile as South Africa with its millions of unemployed youngsters, filled with testosterone and anger.

Community anger, mob riots, uncontrolled mass action, lawlessness and deaths.  Those are the ingredients: protests are the recipes.

We are seeing angry South Africans emerging everywhere. And changing this status quo through the power of ballot box is a fantasy.

So what are the solutions?

There aren’t any easy ones that come to mind and there certainly aren’t any quick ones either because the degree of infrastructural collapse in places like Madibeng is so vast that it will takes years, not months, to repair.  Add to this the collapse of police trust and government credibility and it’s quite clear that we are living in a deeply poisoned society.

Will ruthless prosecution of the law change anything?  That’s not likely to rebuild community trust is it? Changing the administration? Well who will that appease and what will it achieve?  Giving people jobs digging trenches?  How will that solve a problem when the community itself won’t participate?

Like many South Africans, I don’t have any solutions – because wherever I turn, I see individual communities raising ‘new’ problems that have the same thing in common: corruption is endemic.

It’s taken just 20 years of democracy to entrench our corruption and it will now take generations to dismantle it.

For me this is the real disappointment of our democracy.

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