Thaba Chweu Municipality: A nightmare for businesses and residents
Businesses have started to move out of the main town of Lydenburg, as locals experience hardships with access to services such as consistent running water and reliable electricity supply.
JOHANNESBURG - While the Thaba Chweu Local Municipality in Mpumalanga says it cannot afford to carry out its functions due to lack of finances, with businesses and residents feeling the pinch of their collapsing towns and townships, it has done very little to retain the economic activity in the area.
Businesses have also started to move out of the main town of Lydenburg as locals experience hardships with access to services such as consistent running water and reliable electricity supply.
The departure of businesses has also seen the joblessness rate in the already depressed area worsen.
Municipalities are responsible for economic development in their towns and other settlements, with areas such as Thaba Chweu primed to reap the benefits of nearby mining operations and tourism hotspots, but a visit by the Eyewitness News team exposed deep failures by those in charge to capitalise on these activities.
Municipal Mayor Fridah Nkadimeng instead implored residents to pay their bills to enable the municipality to do their work.
“If they don’t play their parts, there is nothing we can do. They should be responsible citizens also. I don’t think the municipality would have a problem in solving all the problems if they paid their part,” she said referring to the need for residents to pay their accounts.
However, a glance at their financials reveals that 98,6% in new revenue was collected through rates and service charges in the past year.
Nkadimeng failed to articulate whether the municipality could not raise more funds through the existing economic activity, such as mining and tourism, in its towns of Lydenburg, Graskop, Sabie and Dullstroom.
Her explanation about the recently closed Glencore-Merafe joint venture’s Lydenburg smelter painted a clearer picture of the municipality’s relational dynamics with businesses, which she conceded were critical to their success.
She told Eyewitness News that she and other officials only found out about the closure of the smelter two weeks before the company moved out of the town. Despite widespread understanding that Thaba Chweu did not even try to convince the company to stay, she said there was nothing they could have done. Over 500 jobs were lost in the process.
Democratic Alliance councillor Spiros Couvaras, who is also a member of the economic development subcommittee in council, said this would not have happened had the municipality created a conducive environment for the business to thrive.
“The mining company has assisted this municipality with water pipes that had broken down. With so many things – transformers and the people who came in to assist with breakdowns. If everything was running and functioning properly, it would not have happened. They would have stayed."
“They were getting bills for astronomical amounts for water and yet they were helping. Our water losses at the moment are over 70%,” explained Couvaras.
The smelter had funded the development of infrastructure in Lydenburg including a massive sewage treatment plant, which has now been vandalised and has not operated for over a year.
The trenches where the criminals dug out cables and other material were still clearly visible when Eyewitness News went to witness what residents describe as a “big shame”. The municipality only put up a fence around the little that remains of it three weeks ago.
Owner of De Ark Guest House in Lydenburg, Francis le Roux, said it had been a nightmare dealing with the municipality.
She said the municipality was working against them to a degree where even signposts directing tourists to their destinations were removed in the thick of the night by municipal workers who demanded payment despite there being no by-law to that effect.
“It’s just a battle to do business, it’s not a joy anymore. They don’t assist at all. I had 28 signposts to guide people to my place, they cut them off, I think I might have six left. They just threw it on a heap in the municipality and we bring a lot of money into this town because accommodation is always scarce here,” she said.
WATCH: Once a tourist hotspot, Lydenburg now lingers on the brink of decay
The municipality does not have a good track record in managing its financial affairs well either. It is currently implementing a financial recovery plan following a Section 139 process, which has seen the Ehlanzeni District Municipality step in.
In 2017, a forensic report on Thaba Chweu - which Eyewitness News has in its possession - found that municipal officials plundered over R350 million, allocated government subsidised houses to themselves and their families, fraudulently paid contractors for work not done and sold off municipal land to their pals.
Couvaras blames the disarray on years of mismanagement, corruption, and incompetence and lack of accountability, more so after the forensic audit exposed how far reaching the criminality was.
“There are supposed to be people that are prosecuted, for the money to be taken back. It’s all subjudice they tell us, but no monies have come back.
“Just last Monday, they told us they found 14 officials of the municipality that had bridged their metres, so they gave them a fine. According to me and the municipal infrastructure act and MFMA, they should have been fired because they are defrauding the municipality. But these guys still go to work,” Couvaras said as he questioned why there was no accountability.
Nkadimeng would not be drawn into discussing the 2017 forensic report, saying the matter was now before the court of law. But she informed Eyewitness News that she had never seen or read the said report.
When probed further, she irritably dismissed the question, saying it would “cause electoral problems” for them ahead of the 1 November polls, while turning down Eyewitness News’ offer to share the report, which points to systemic failures and is likely just the tip of the iceberg as it has never been released to the public since its completion.
It was also never tabled in council despite having been funded by the municipality under the pretext that it was cleaning house.
Responding to allegations of corruption made by residents and opposition political parties, Nkadimeng said she encouraged complainants to bring evidence supporting the sentiments.
“If anyone can just say you are corrupt without any evidence of that, then there is nothing you can do. But if you can say this is the evidence, then the municipality will have to deal with that.”
Yet the findings of the damning 2017 forensic report, which is now being disputed in the courts, were never actioned.
Meanwhile, residents and the business community watch helplessly as the municipality worsens by the day, as the officials in charge cry for more money in grant allocations from Treasury.