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ELM chaos – The latest: COGTA steps in, Municipal Manager resigns, Strike ends

The on-going chaos in the strike-plagued Emakhazeni Local Municipality (ELM) finally reached boiling point recently – with a number of key events occurring in rapid succession. Apparently in response to numerous complaints, letters, etc. by private citizens and ratepayer associations throughout the four towns within the ELM municipal area to both provincial, as well as national government – as well as continued pressure applied by THG in publicising the shambolic state of affairs in ELM - COGTA (Co-operative Government and Traditional Affairs) have finally stepped in.

THG has been informed that Ms. L.K. Tshabalala from Cogta, Nelspruit was recently deployed to take over the reins in the embattled municipality. And she lost no time in starting to put ELM’s house in order. One of her first orders of business was to tackle the issue of ELM’s problematic Municipal Manager, Ms. T. Shoba. The issue of Ms. Shoba has long been a bone of contention in ELM – with issues regarding her alleged lack of qualifications to hold her position, as well as her apparent repeated refusal to implement ELM Council decisions regarding the handling of the long-running ELM municipal workers strike. One of the final straws, according to ELM sources, was that ELM recently received only a qualified financial audit - as opposed to a clean bill of health, financially speaking. The blame for this has been laid at Ms. Shoba’s door. The upshot of all of this was that, when Ms. Tshabalala, Cogta’s hatchet-lady arrived, Ms. Shoba was immediately “asked to resign”. Translated for the average person, that means “Go quietly or we’ll fire you.” One down, more to go. THG has also received, as yet unconfirmed reports, that Mr. Lucas Sindane, ELM’s pistol-packing Technical Services Manager, as well as ELM’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) may well be next on Cogta’s chopping block.

The next order of business for Ms. Tshabalala’s steamroller management style was to, once and for all, put an end to the on-again, off-again, labour dispute that has crippled the towns in ELM and has seen service delivery and municipal revenue collection dwindle to new lows. With this in mind, an unheard of Sunday meeting was scheduled recently with Tshabalala and municipal workers, as wel as their various union representatives and things were hammered out. End result? The very next day, the disgruntled workers were back at work. It remains to be seen what the long-term resolution of this conflict will be and it is unknown exactly what was said to the workers, but, at least in the interim, Tshabalala has ended the strike. Something that nobody else has seemingly been able to do in almost a year.

Now the aftermath. The net result of the protracted industrial action has virtually crippled ELM and, bluntly put, the coffers are empty. ELM is not only broke, but also heavily in debt. There is no money for equipment, no money for chemicals to properly treat the water at the various waterworks – according to DA representative and ELM councillor, Amanda Botha, there is not even money to fill the fuel tanks of ELM’s remaining vehicles. Perhaps most importantly, there is no money to pay Eskom. ELM residents have been receiving either sporadic or no service delivery at all for a long time. Accordingly, many of them have simply not paid their bills. Those that have attempted to pay have been repeatedly thwarted in that ELM municipal offices have simply not been open to take their payments. Bottom line, there is no money.

Eskom have, in terms of national legislation, not been able to take any punitive action against ELM whilst the strike remained unresolved. But, now that the strike is over, that protection has fallen away. Because ELM has repeatedly reneged on multiple payment agreements with Eskom, they are now expected to come down on ELM management like the proverbial “ton of bricks” to demand millions of rand’s worth of arrears. In the words of the DA’s Amanda Botha: “Up until now, ELM residents have at least had electricity and water – even if that water wasn’t very clean. If Eskom ‘pulls the plug’ on ELM, we will really be in trouble.” She went on to warn that, if residents continued not paying the amounts they owed to ELM, there was a very real danger that the situation could get much worse – very quickly. “If there’s no power, we can’t run the water pumps and then there will not even be water,” she said. “So the answer is not to start a rates boycott against ELM. That will just make things worse,” she added. “People must pay what they owe.”

Whether ELM will indeed face a rates boycott by furious and gatvol residents – or a variation thereof – in the coming months, only time will tell. Another alternative, and perhaps one being considered by Cogta is, in order to place ELM back on a firm financial footing in the future, that the municipality be placed under administration. This has happened in similar cases with many other chaotic municipalities but is considered to be an extreme (and expensive) last-resort measure. Again, only time will tell, and the hard truth is that ELM residents have little choice but to adopt a wait-and-see attitude and hope for the best.


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