ANC broke our town. It can’t fix it
President Cyril Ramaphosa told a Freedom Day rally in the stricken Makana municipality (formerly Grahamstown) that he and the "new" ANC would turn things around after the elections.
Richard Gaybba, chair of the Grahamstown Business Forum, doesn't believe it.
"I don't believe in Father Christmas or the Easter Bunny, so I think that's one stretch too far for me."
Makana is one of 87 "dysfunctional" municipalities named by the government, and Gaybba says the ANC, which runs it, has been central to its almost total collapse.
Ramaphosa said the ANC had brought water, sanitation and electricity to millions. But Gaybba points out that in Makana, these and other critical services have been almost nonexistent for years.
He says cadre deployment, incompetence and corruption have almost destroyed what used to be a thriving, successful municipality - and the regional ANC has consistently intervened to prevent corrective action.
Makana's residents, businesses and famous educational and cultural institutions have been largely left to provide services for themselves at crippling cost.
Its two most important "industries", Rhodes University and the National Arts Festival, have "suffered tremendously".
Parents with the kind of money the university and local businesses depend on are sending their children to universities in towns that offer better infrastructure.
The investor market for student accommodation is "very, very quiet".
Its top private schools are losing rich parents because of the state of the town.
"If you're a Johannesburg parent, are you going to choose Michaelhouse and Hilton or Grahamstown?"
The future of the National Arts Festival, which has been a lucrative source of revenue for Makana, is in doubt.
"People don't want to come to a place without water, sanitation or electricity."
Dwindling support for the festival has also had a harsh impact on local businesses, and it could get a whole lot worse.
"There's a constant threat the arts festival will move from Grahamstown if these basic needs are not met. They'll have no choice."
The university, schools and arts festival "used to be a great source of revenue for the town, and that's gone".
Surrounding game farms "don't rely at all on Makana" any more, he says.
They're $1,000-a-night [R14,400] places, and they no longer bring their extremely well-heeled, mostly foreign, guests into town.
"We don't have tour buses that come into town any more." Apart from the lack of water, sanitation and electricity, the roads are too bad.
"This was the cultural heartland of the country. Seventy percent of SA's forts are in this region. This is what tourists want to see, but they don't go there any more because it's a complete mess. The resources we have here have completely gone to waste."
Gaybba, who runs IPC Properties in addition to chairing the business forum, says he looks at the balance sheets of his members and wonders how they're surviving.
Eighteen businesses have closed in the past 18 months. Others are retrenching. Only 20,000 out of 100,000 working-age people in the town have jobs.
"You walk through the streets and you see desperate, desperate people."
Businesses that can afford to are spending a fortune on water pumps, private rubbish removal services, septic tanks, solar panels and generators.
There were almost daily 14-hour switch-offs because of the municipality's nonpayment of electricity bills until civic organisations got an interim interdict preventing Eskom from doing this.
The next hearing is in June. Gaybba expects Eskom will force the municipality to pay more for electricity than it can afford. Either it will have to cut down on salaries, which so far the ANC has not allowed, or even more on services.
"They're going to be in serious trouble," he says - like the adjacent Dr Beyers NaudE municipality, which has been cut off.
All that's keeping Makana alive are volunteers.
Gaybba spends three hours every day doing municipal work - co-ordinating refuse collection, filling potholes, fund-raising to fix street lights and pay for crucial jobs the municipality can't or won't do.
During a nine-week strike by municipal workers, the business forum arranged for refuse to be collected and organised bulldozers to keep the dump going.
He says at least 50 people are "very active on a daily basis" doing municipal tasks.
But the situation is unsustainable. A R50m municipal surplus in 1994 has been turned into a R250m deficit, which is growing as revenue dries up.
"The question we ask ourselves every day is, are we on the edge of the cliff or have we fallen off?"
That point will come when Rhodes University closes down or becomes dysfunctional, and the arts festival leaves town, he says.
"Then Grahamstown would become like one of those railway towns in SA that lost the railway. It would become a dustbowl. That's a very real possibility."
Makana has been under administration a few times. In the past 18 months, it has had 10 administrators and acting municipal managers.
Now civic organisations are asking the courts for a full section 139 (c) administration whereby they dissolve the council.
"We're now saying it needs to be done."
The ideal solution, he feels, would be an effective public-private partnership. But so far the regional ANC, which calls the shots, has not allowed it.
"We've spoken about this for years but they're not interested in a real partnership. They're interested in 'You give us money and we do it our way'."
Makana, he says, has been destroyed by an "ineffectual council and a regional ANC that keeps interfering. It comes down to governance and a massive patronage network."
Even the water crisis has been caused more by mismanagement and corruption than drought, he says.
The big crime for him is that, thanks to the university, Makana has a surfeit of people with "brainpower and expertise who are willing to assist" - for example, one of the top hydrologists in the world, and the Institute of Water Research.
They weren't consulted about the looming water crisis until it was too late, he says...