ROAD TO 2021 LOCAL ELECTIONS: KWAZULU-NATAL: Ground-Level Report: Umzimkhulu emerges from July looting virtually unscathed, but enters polls beset by deadly stench of corruption

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Umzimkhulu numbers

When looters began circling the town of Umzimkhulu during the violence that shook KwaZulu-Natal in July, heavily armed local taxi associations blockaded entrance roads with their vehicles and formed human shields, threatening to “deal” with those who would defy them and try to loot and burn down the town. As a result, only a few shops were looted and none was burnt, leaving Umzimkhulu largely unscathed.

Taxi owner Thembelani Thobela (47) said they couldn’t allow their livelihood to go up in flames. “We told them (the looters) that all the shops were closed so there was no point of proceeding towards the town,” he said. “We warned those who wanted to go ahead that they will have to go through us first. They retreated… we were able to defend everything, including the municipal and other government offices.” Local farmers so appreciated the gesture that they brought food and other supplies to the defenders of the town, he said.

Umzimkhulu taxisThembelani Thobela and Sibusiso Maduna, taxi drivers from Umzimkhulu. (Photo: Mlungisi Mbele)

Residents of neighbouring KZN towns that were looted flocked to Umzimkhulu (named The Great House) to buy groceries and other vital goods as it was the only one still standing.

The poverty-stricken town has a high unemployment rate and relies on government old-age and child support grants for survival (see inset map). It was busy when Daily Maverick visited on an overcast Wednesday, 6 October, in the run-up to the 1 November local government elections.

Election fever in Umzimkhulu

Political party posters, including for the ANC, the EFF, the IFP, the DA and independent candidates, were plastered on walls and poles.

Until 1 March 2006, the town was part of an enclave of the Eastern Cape, surrounded by areas under KZN. It was transferred to KZN as part of the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution. Matatiele, a town about 154km away, was transferred from KZN to the Eastern Cape.

In recent years, the Umzimkhulu Local Municipality has become synonymous with corruption and persistent service delivery protests by fed-up residents.

It is here that, in 2017, former ANC Youth League national secretary-general Sindiso Magaqa was killed. He had blown the whistle on the dodgy tender for R37-million meant to refurbish the Umzimkhulu Memorial Hall. (See sidebar below on various investigations into corruption and maladministration). He was a councillor at the time of his death.

Umzimkhulu magaqaSindiso Magaqa at the ANCYL National Congress at Gallagher Estate, Johannesburg on 18 June 2011. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

Magaqa and two female ANC councillors were ambushed by armed men while returning from an ANC meeting. Their vehicles were sprayed with bullets. All three were injured, but Magaqa died from his injuries in a Durban hospital.

The men arrested for Magaqa’s death are still facing trial. Initially, Mluleki Ndobe, the late former KZN ANC provincial deputy secretary, was charged with the murder, along with Mbulelo Mpofana, Sibonelo Myeza and Mlungisi Ncalane. Myeza and Ncalane were SAPS officers who were dismissed while in custody. Charges against Ndobe were later withdrawn (he committed suicide in November 2020 after battling cancer for years and undergoing chemotherapy.)

Magaqa’s murder was not isolated. Umzimkhulu Local Municipality Speaker Khaya Thobela, ANC councillor and branch leader Khaya Mgcwaba and Mduduzi Tshibase‚ a teacher and ANC councillor, were killed just months before the attack on Magaqa. Nkosinathi Ngcobo, another top ANC official in the region, was also gunned down. These deaths are believed to be related to fraud and corruption in the municipality.

Despite investigations and promises of a clean-up, Thabiso Zulu, Magaqa’s friend and fellow whistle-blower, is adamant that corruption remains endemic in Umzimkhulu.

Umzimkhulu postersPosters outside Umzimkhulu municipal offices. Umzimkhulu is a town in the Harry Gwala District Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal. The town lies 243km northeast of Mthatha and 18km southwest of Ixopo. (Photo: Mlungisi Mbele)

“We had documents supporting the allegations of corruption happening in this municipality. We handed all these documents and further proof to the SA Revenue Service, to the Special Investigating Unit, to the Hawks, but nothing was done,” Zulu said.

“And we cooperated with an investigation of the then KZN premier Willies Mchunu. This, too, turned out to be a whitewash and promises that people will be arrested fell through.”

Service delivery protests in Umzimkhulu are common. Nontsikelelo Mafu was one of the two councillors who were with Magaqa when they came under fire. She survived, but had to use crutches for some time.

The ANC renominated her for Ward 11 councillor in the upcoming elections. Residents protested for days, accusing her of not working for the community and failing to deliver on their demands for the link roads to be completed and for water and sanitation services to be provided. Ward 11 also wanted young unemployed people to be given job opportunities in the area. The protests only stopped after Umzimkhulu mayor Mphuthumi Mpabanga, his deputy Sindisiwe Nkala and municipal manager Zweliphantsi Sikhosana met residents to quell the unrest.

Attempts to reach Mafu for comment were unsuccessful as she did not respond to phone calls and text messages.

A desperate town with few jobs

Sbusiso Maduna (41), another taxi owner who was with Thobela, said that apart from corruption, the municipality faces a host of challenges. “The roads are bad, with many potholes. Even here, in the town centre, they should put robots because there are many accidents, especially near the mall,” he said.

Young people who spoke to Daily Maverick also complained about a lack of jobs and other opportunities to improve their lives.

Zama Mohlakoane (28) has a matric certificate, but a few years ago she was forced to go around the town and taxi ranks to sell nuts, chips, sweets and other items. “There are no job opportunities here,” she said. 

Umzimkhulu tradersZama Mhlakwana (27) and Philile Miya (31) wake up early every morning to sell cakes, sweets and chips in Umzimkhulu. (Photo: Supplied)

On a bad day, she makes about R150 and up to R600 on a good day, which she uses to support a family of 10, including her three young children. “It is better than nothing. Life is very tough here and only the fittest survive. But I would like to get a decent job so that I can support and educate my children,” said the single mother. 

Philile Miya (31), who is also a hawker, said the biggest challenge facing Umzimkhulu residents is that they are often forced to sleep on the roadside outside the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) and Home Affairs offices, in the rain and cold with young children, to receive grants and get support.

Other residents said whoonga-smoking vagrants, derogatorily known as “paras” (for parasites), pickpocket during the day and turn the town into a no-go zone at night.

Umzimkhulu shop ownerJames Alli (31) is a shop owner in Umzimkhulu. He said some of his stock was looted during the unrest in July. Insurance helped him to replenish stock. (Photo: Mlungisi Mbele)

Willy Mgcina, spokesperson for the local municipality, said they are trying very hard under difficult circumstances. “The increasing rate of unemployment is a national issue. Umzimkhulu is therefore not immune. The municipality has since embarked on processes to invest in infrastructure development and further explore avenues to partner with the private sector. We strongly believe that the future of our young people will be unlocked then. We will stop at nothing to ensure such an objective is met,” he said.

He acknowledged that the municipality has suffered reputational damage. “The reputation and image of the municipality had been shaken over the corruption-related stigma, (but we have been encouraged by recent reports, including being) cleared and given the thumbs up by the Public Protector. Other law enforcement agencies and other relevant institutions have improved. (This has) boosted public confidence (in the municipality),” Mgcina said.

The council and the 2021 poll

The Umzimkhulu council has 43 members. In the election on 3 August 2016, the ANC won 38 seats and the EFF two. The DA, African Independent Congress and IFP each won one.

Besides the ubiquitous posters erected a few weeks before election day, parties are also making promises, some bigger than others.

Umzimkhulu postersLungisa Luthuli, a councillor at Ward 26, places a poster under a bridge helped by a resident of Cedarville in Kokstad. This town falls under the Harry Gwala District in KwaZulu-Natal. (Photo: Mlungisi Mbele)

The EFF has promised to rid the town of corruption, saying it will field candidates in all wards and also have proportional representatives. Xolisa Memela, an EFF leader in Umzimkhulu, said: “We are pushing very hard to overthrow the ANC from power. If we win this municipality, we would call for a forensic audit of all the projects here. There are many projects that were started but never finished, the money budgeted for these projects disappearing. We are tired of the corruption in the municipality. Even Magaqa (an ANC councillor) died because he was probing the vanishing funds meant to build the town hall. We will also speed up service delivery, things like building of roads. We will also create job opportunities, especially for the young people.”

Zenzele Msomi, spokesperson for the ANC in the Harry Gwala region, which includes Umzimkhulu, said the party’s electioneering process was going very well. They were less worried about opposition parties than former ANC leaders standing as independent candidates. 

“The dynamics of the 2016 elections are different from those of the 2021 elections. We have more independent candidates who lost out through the ANC processes and decided to go it alone. We have learnt from our mistakes. In the past, we had taken former councillors and put them in the municipal management positions. This resulted in corruption and dodgy tenders. Now we only want qualified people to occupy management positions. The council would play its role of monitoring the work done by the management, without interfering in management decisions,” Msomi said. 

The DA, too, is not modest in its ambitions. According to the party’s leader in the area, Sbusiso Mkhize, the blue train aims to win two wards and garner another three proportional representative council seats to bring its total to five council seats. “This is possible because this area was a stronghold of the ANC but now people are disillusioned with the party due to corruption, mismanagement, nepotism, unfulfilled promises and lack of service delivery. People are yearning for big change and the DA is going to provide this change. In the upcoming elections there would be nine independent candidates, all of them coming from the ANC. That shows that people have lost hope in the ANC and they are looking for new political homes,” Mkhize said. DM

There have been several probes into allegations of fraud, corruption and related issues within the Umzimkhulu Local Municipality, conducted by various state organs including the Public Protector’s office, Special Investigating Unit and KZN Premier’s Office.

The Public Protector released two reports in 2018, one on allegations of corruption and misuse of public funds. 

The investigation began in October 2017 following the death of Sindiso Magaqa and five other local municipality officials. These deaths were linked to a fraud and corruption cover-up relating to the appointment and payment of service providers for the refurbishment of the dilapidated Umzimkhulu Memorial Hall.

The first report found various violations, irregular expenditure and improper conduct by the municipality. Remedial action included revising the council’s supply chain management and an investigation of the root causes of the alleged political killings.

The second report dealt with gross negligence and lack of oversight regarding a lack of security provided to whistle-blowers.

The report found that the allegation that the SAPS had failed to provide security to whistle-blowers was substantiated, and the police were ordered to apologise and rectify security arrangements for two specific whistle-blowers who feared for their lives.

Responding to queries from Daily Maverick this week, Oupa Segalwe, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s spokesperson, said that in terms of compliance in the whistle-blower matter, the Public Protector had directed Police Minister Bheki Cele to supply her with a copy of the threat assessment compiled by the police’s Crime Intelligence on Thabiso Zulu and another Umzimkhulu whistle-blower.

The report was set aside when Cele took it on judicial review. 

“The SA Human Rights Commission (then) took the matter of Mr Zulu (one of the whistle-blowers) to court and succeeded in securing him Witness Protection. However, Mr Zulu opted out of the programme. Last month, the Public Protector closed an investigation against President Ramaphosa in which Mr Zulu was a complainant. He had alleged that the president failed to keep his word after promising him protection in a telephone conversation. The allegation could not be corroborated,” Segalwe said.

Regarding the second report on fraud and corruption linked to the Umzimkhulu Memorial Hall, Segalwe said remedial action was ongoing and the Public Protector was watching this process with a keen eye.

“In the main, the head of the Hawks was urged to take steps to investigate the conduct of all municipal officials involved in tender irregularities. The information we have is that the Hawks are seized with the matter. A case under the case number CAS01/09/29 is being investigated in this regard.”

Umzimkhulu Local Municipality spokesperson Willy Mgcina did not respond directly to questions about remedial action recommended by the Public Protector, or clarify how the implicated officials have been dealt with by the municipality or what the municipality has done to recover funds from companies or contractors that were paid irregularly.

Instead, he said the municipality is doing its best to fight corruption, but is constrained by the law and other government agencies. “In line with some of the Public Protector recommendations, (heritage authority) Amafa KZN and Umzimkhulu Municipality met to clarify certain details… as a result the municipality was granted the desired permission to renovate the heritage hall. Therefore, the matter was resolved,” Mgcina said. 

“According to our understanding, the consequence management and suspensions are for situations whereby people had been charged and found guilty in the court of law. It is unfortunate that such are not applicable to Umzimkhulu Municipality.” DM

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