Port Elizabeth - Nelson Mandela Bay ratepayers, sick and tired of fruitless and wasteful spending and poor decisions by their municipality, are turning to the courts to force their councillors to improve services.
Chairperson of the NM Bay Ratepayers Association Kobus Gerber says unlike other municipalities which are boycotting paying their rates, residents of Nelson Mandela Bay will start taking errant councillors to the High Court.
“We decided [on] taking a wise approach,” he says.
“We are going to take councillors and make them accountable in their private capacity in the High Court if they make poor decisions.”
The ratepayer group succeeded earlier this year in preventing the municipality from using R10m to fund a voter education programme.
‘Incredibly bad decision making’
"I had a meeting with the mayor about this and in the end we succeeded by using the law," says Gerber.
“There are so many problems in this metro, but the decision making is incredibly bad. For example we have 22 000 people in the poor communities still using the bucket system, yet we can have a jazz festival for R9m.
“Then there are many sports that can't be played because the grass hasn't been cut."
Gerber says ratepayers are supported by businesses, who are feeling the pinch of the cutbacks made by the cash-strapped municipality.
“We started getting all property owners behind us and then we started with the businesses. Every time we make a decision, we phone and ask them if they will support us."
The next task for the NM Bay ratepayers is to fight a proposed 25.6% hike in electricity prices and 15% hike in water prices.Won’t stand for it
“We are not standing for it. So many business failures and job losses will come out of this. This is way above Treasury guidelines. We are being asked to repair the municipality's debt. It's not fair.”
Businesses have suffered from the ripple effect caused by the municipality's cost cutting. The municipality is one of the major financiers of the metro's economy.
"The poor decision making is causing financial difficulty for the whole economy around the metro. Satellite companies working for the municipality were the first to be affected. Many that were supplying vital services to the municipality are in danger of shutting down.
"You can see the ripple effect through the economy."
‘Mayor failed residents’
The Democratic Alliance's caucus leader in Nelson Mandela Bay, Leon de Villiers, believes Mayor Zanoxolo Wayile has failed the residents of the metro with the mismanagement of the municipality's finances.
"The current cash crisis has seen an amount of R790m being slashed from what was already a very depleted budget, as a result of the cost of hosting the World Cup," he says.
"The ratepayers of this metro funded R878m of the total cost to host the World Cup, versus an original budget of R340m.
"That is an over expenditure of R538m and that is why we now have a serious cash crisis."
De Villiers says replacing bucket toilets, resurfacing, tarring and rehabilitating gravel roads, constructing stormwater infrastructure and new clinics will all be hit by the slashed budget.
"We have had an acting municipal manager in the city for close on two years. We have numerous acting directors. It is extremely difficult to get things done without permanent appointees. It is also impossible for a city to do anything when it is bankrupt."Close race
The poor financial management and the infighting in the city will cause “a very close race” with the ANC for the metro in the May 18 local government election, says De Villiers.
“We do not believe we can win outright on our own, but with the help of some of the opposition parties, we believe we can lead a coalition,” he says.
Support for the ANC dropped from 69% of the city to 49.6% in the 2009 general election after the launch of the Congress of the People, which won 17% of the vote.
The DA won 25% of the vote in 2006, taking 30 out of 120 council seats.
Cope's Eastern Cape spokesperson Rano Keyser says the party has the potential to unseat the ANC in the metro through a coalition.
"I think we have potential of unseating the ANC, not on our own but through a coalition."Unfair criticism - city
City spokesperson Ongama Mtimka believes the criticism is unfair.
The metro's economy, which is fed by the auto industry, was hit hard during the financial crisis.
"We are heavily reliant on auto industry and lots of people lost jobs."
Job losses in the city are one of the possible causes of a fall in rate collections.
"We did have a major cash flow challenge last year. Our ability to pay contractors was seriously compromised.
"But we have launched a revenue enhancement campaign to encourage residents to pay their debts. We are doing this coupled with debt relief for families who are not able to pay."
Mtimka says the unqualified audit of the municipality's finances by the auditor general "speaks volumes" about the city's accounting practises.
"Our good credit rating has allowed us access finance and to roll out projects faster."‘False notion of corruption’
There is a "false notion" of massive corruption in the administration, he says, adding that NM Bay is one of the few municipalities to have started a municipal public accounts committee.
"Most of the corruption has been exposed. And this has been as a result of our own robust internal audit processes." Port Elizabeth has had a few more achievements, he says.
In 2008 it won the cleanest city award, "a vote of confidence in terms of refuse collection".
In 2007, a survey by Municipal IQ found the city was the biggest spender per capita among South Africa's metros.
Mtimka says 100% of formal houses in the city have access to water, while families living in informal settlements have access to water within 200m of where they stay.
ANC Eastern Cape spokesperson Mlibo Qoboshiyane says the party is "highly confident" ahead of the election.
"Of course, we admit there are some challenges in some areas, particularly where there are communities living in informal settlements. But we are the only organisation that will address these things."
One of the ANC-run municipality's biggest successes has been the 22 000 houses it has built since 2008 in NM Bay, he claims.
Many voters to abstain from voting
As long as areas are "not yet formalised" it will be difficult to put in solid infrastructure.
"People sometimes establish their own shack dwellings in areas where they stand to be removed. That makes it difficult to install infrastructure. The bucket system too is still a major problem in informal settlements."
Political analysts say there is a strong likelihood many voters will abstain from the May 18 election.
"A lot of people are not happy about their candidates," Mari Harris from research company Ipsos Markinor says.
"Many are saying they would rather not vote than vote for the opposition."
Gerber however says ratepayers will continue to fight for their cause, no matter who comes into power after the election.
"We are not going to sit back," he says.
"We will fight in the courts if we have to. We have to make sure that we get value for our rates."