CITY OF STORMS
As Nelson Mandela Bay fights the Covid-19 pandemic, the National Treasury has threatened to cut its share of national revenue due to governance missteps
As Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane has sent an SOS to national government for help managing the Covid-19 pandemic, concerns are rising about the effects ongoing political and governance ructions at Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) may have on the metro’s frail health-care system.
The Eastern Cape metro needs all hands on deck to respond to the outbreak, which has already claimed the province’s only two metros — NMB and Buffalo City — as hotspots. The city admits it is “under siege”; by Monday, 9,400 of the Eastern Cape’s 35,000 infections had been recorded in NMB.
But the political shenanigans that are playing out in the metro raise doubts about the council’s ability to respond to the coronavirus effectively.
Leadership of the metro has been a mess for years. In August 2018 UDM councillor Mongameli Bobani was elected executive mayor after the DA’S Athol Trollip was ousted in a vote of no confidence. Little over a year later, in December 2019, Bobani met the same fate. His deputy, African Independent Congress councillor Thsonono Buyeye, has been acting in the position ever since.
The business sector has been particularly critical of high-level vacancies in the metro. In a June 15 letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, the NMB Business Chamber (NMBBC) laments the “prolonged dysfunctional state” of the municipality and that the position of executive mayor has been vacant for more than six months.
It echoes a letter the chamber sent Bobani back in September 2018, decrying the “current dysfunctional state” of the municipality and the dire state of its economy, and highlighting the need to fill the critical vacancies of city manager and CFO.
Chamber CEO Nomkhita Mona tells the FM that over the years the situation at NMB has been steadily deteriorating, and that this prompted the chamber to escalate matters.
“What level of dysfunction would necessitate a municipality to have no less than 11 acting city managers in 18 months?” Mona asks. “The chaos that ensues is unimaginable.”
In its most recent letter, the chamber notes that the National Treasury has threatened to withhold the equitable share due to the metro from the national coffers under section 216 (2) of the constitution.
This, the chamber said, would have “dire and far-reaching” socioeconomic consequences for residents — particularly with the metro already on the brink of disaster, facing “rapidly rising Covid-19 infections and the associated economic recession, an erosion of business confidence, as well as the ongoing deterioration in the management of critical infrastructure, water shortages caused by leaks and the current drought situation (with ‘Day Zero’ an ever-looming threat)”.
As Mona tells the FM: “The city is on the edge of a cliff, about to fall into an abyss ... Whenever a municipality is unable to fulfil its executive obligations in terms of the constitution or any other legislation, economic growth is stifled and a constraint is placed on business competitiveness.”
On June 29, the council’s fears were realised when Treasury deputy directorgeneral for intergovernmental relations Malijeng Ngqaleni informed acting city manager Mvuleni Mapu of the Treasury’s intention to withhold the remaining local government equitable share and conditional grants.
The equitable share alone, says DA Eastern Cape leader Nqaba Bhanga, is about R700m.
In her letter, Ngqaleni says the Treasury is looking to intervene after the council failed to table and adopt the 2020/2021 mediumterm revenue and expenditure framework (the draft budget) and the draft integrated
Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane development plan (IDP) in line with the Local Government: Municipal Finance Management Act and the Local Government: Municipal Systems Act.
Failure to comply with budget processes is not only a “serious and persistent breach of prescribed measures”, she says, but “a reflection of weak and poor governance on the part of the municipality”.
Ngqaleni’s letter further points to “political and administrative instability” leading to “material governance failures”. By way of example, she refers to a June 5 council meeting to consider the budget that was canned for want of the required quorum.
And while the law provides for the deputy executive mayor to act in the position of executive mayor, “this was never intended to be perpetual” and, if challenged, “a competent court may interpret this as irregular”.
Ngqaleni takes aim at acting city manager Mapu himself, noting that, in the absence of a council resolution, the Treasury considers his appointment “irregular and therefore unlawful ... [with] far-reaching and potentially devastating consequences with regard to a
myriad administrative and financial decisions”.
But Mayoral council member Andile Lungisa tells the FM that Ngqaleni’s letter was premature: on the very day she sent it, the council had sat to approve the IDP and budget.
“Even if we didn’t approve the IDP and budget, invoking section 216 (2) of the constitution is punitive, drastic and unjustified,” says Lungisa. “This is a witch hunt that we are dealing with. The National
Treasury is being mischievous, unreasonable and unjust.
We won’t be told what to do.”
Mapu’s appointment as acting city manager was ratified by the council on June 29, and the metro now has a permanent CFO in Selwyn Thys. “The Treasury had said we must fill the vacancies, which we did.”
Buyeye’s spokesperson, Siyanda Mxotwa also tells the FM the city has complied with the
Treasury’s requirements: it’s passed the budget and appointed an acting city manager, among other things. It’s also working on appointing a permanent executive mayor and permanent city manager.
“The council has approved a process, with all parties involved, [through which] the next council meeting in the next seven days should deal with the issue of the mayor,” says Mxotwa.
But Bhanga, the leader of the official opposition in the province and a councillor in the metro, is not impressed. “The only thing happening in this metro is in-fighting,” he says. “We have an incapable acting executive mayor. As a result, people are going to die because of Covid19 and the city is going to collapse because of maladministration.”
Capacity is a very real concern in the face of Covid-19. By late June already, national health minister Zweli Mkhize warned that NMB’S hospitals were “bursting at the seams”, with too many patients and too few staff.
This week, The Herald reports that all hospitals in the metro — public and private — are full, and patients are being taken to field hospitals to relieve pressure on the health system.
NMB is the site of two field hospitals. A facility at the NMB stadium came online on June 1, adding 1,500 beds to the metro’s tally, says health MEC Sindiswa Gomba. The Rev Dr Elizabeth Mamisa Chabula-nxiweni field hospital, situated in an old Volkswagen SA assembly plant, began taking admissions last week. In its first phase, it will provide 1,485 beds, with capacity of 3,300 on completion.
At the request of Mabuyane, a contingent of nurses and other health-care specialists from the SA National Defence Force arrived in the province on Sunday. The 75 specialists will be deployed in NMB to offer health-care relief.
While Mxotwa says the metro’s health-care system is “under siege” from Covid-19, with more quarantine sites expected to come online, “the city is in a ready mode”.
For her part, MEC Gomba believes things have improved. “The situation at the metro’s hospitals is not as bad as it might have been previously. The hospitals are admitting people and our working relationship with the municipality has not broken at all,” she says. “We have not heard of any challenges regarding services rendered by the municipality.”
But business remains concerned.
Mona tells the FM that the Covid-19 outbreak “exposed all the structural cracks in the foundation of our city”.
She points out how, when the city became an epicentre of the outbreak, the private sector had to step in. “[The private sector] fixed hospital wards, donated beds, PPE [and] testing equipment, facilitated the donation of other medical equipment as well as the fully kitted field hospital donated by Volkswagen SA,” says Mona. She puts the value of these donations upwards of R130m.
But business is worried, “as the health-care system is on the brink of a potential collapse”.
Mona says the chamber’s role is not to only point out what doesn’t work; it’s also on record as having offered to second experts to the metro from its member companies to assist with backlogs and the tightening of various systems — at no cost to the council.
“That offer remains on the table — we are willing to constructively engage with the NMB municipal council to assist with the formulation of meaningful interventions required to [stop] the downward spiral,” she says.
That may now be more important than ever. “While the health-care practitioners should continue fighting the war on the frontline,” Mona says, “economic practitioners should be concerned about economic recovery – introducing specific strategies on alleviation of poverty, prevention of job losses, increase business survival and re-skilling the workforce.”
What level of dysfunction would necessitate a municipality to have no less than 11 acting city managers in 18 months? The chaos that ensues is unimaginable