More than words please, Mr Sithole

eThekwini bosses are making the right noises (and, no, they’re not grunts from deep within City Hall chambers) and it remains to see what action, if any, will be taken against officials who were responsibl for huge amounts of irregular expenditure.

Durban’s mayor is angry. His deputy is visibly and obviously frustrated. Opposition parties are livid. The new city boss vows to take action. And all the while, some of the city’s top officials are looking rather sheepish.

This was the scene at this week’s meeting of the eThekwini metro’s Executive Committee (ExCo), where the council’s annual report for the 2010/11 financial year was presented, and with it the Auditor-General’s report on the city for the same period. Reading through the document, it’s easy to see why Mayor James Nxumalo is angry, why Deputy Mayor Nomvuso Shabalala is frustrated and why municipal manager S’bu Sithole has vowed to take action.

The AG’s report makes for scary reading.

Between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011, the municipality’s irregular expenditure topped R1.3 billion. That’s a massive amount. For the same period a year earlier, the figure sat at R532 million, in itself an alarmingly large amount of ratepayer money. It must be said that “irregular” doesn’t necessarily mean fraudulent, fruitless or wasted expenditure. It does, however, mean that somewhere during the procurement process, for one or another reason, regulations were not followed properly. That is worrying enough for me.

“We are angry about this,” Nxumalo said just moments after the report was presented to his committee. “It just keeps increasing,” he continued as the room fell very silent. He looked across at the Deputy City Managers – who have been instructed to attend ExCo meetings – before saying: “It’s a problem and something that we must deal with. I’m happy that we’re talking to senior managers and that the city manager is here. It cannot be business as usual. Somehow, somewhere, we have to take action.”

Shabalala, too, had a go at the officials. So did the DA’s Tex Collins and Patrick Pillay of the Minority Front. It was a non-stop barrage against the officials – and many will argue it was a well-deserved non-stop barrage.

Newly appointed eThekwini municipal manager S'bu Sithole. So far, he's saying the right things, but it remains to see if he actually takes action. PICTURE:GCINA NDWALANE

And then Sithole spoke. His voice is calm and actually rather pleasant to listen to. He comes across as friendly and soft, but colleagues and even opposition parties say that he wields a large large stick. If true, this bodes well for the city during his reign.

“Where there is deliberate or negligent use of irregular practices, there needs to be action. There’s no doubt about it,” he said.

Sithole also took aim at the city’s ongoing use of Section 36 of the Supply Chain Management policy, which allows for a breach in regular procurement processes under certain conditions, such as in an emergency, or where there is a single supplier. The AGs report indicated that R469m worth of services were procured using Section 36 in 2010/11, but a separate report released 10 days ago indicated that, between July and December 2011, already R667m had been spent using this section. Sithole wants this stopped. He said it would only be allowed in “exceptional circumstances”.

He repeated that action would be taken against officials that didn’t comply. Unfortunately, Sithole did not specify exactly what “action” entailed.

One can only hope that he means dismissal and, fingers crossed, criminal prosecution when the evidence suggests it’s necessary. Because, and here’s the crux of the matter, words are not enough when it comes to ratepayer money. Somewhere along the lines, action – and strong action at that – has to be taken. Those officials and councillors caught with their hands in the cookie jar, so to speak, need to be fired. Ratepayers expect nothing less.

In Sithole’s favour is that he doesn’t have any of the baggage from the Michael Sutcliffe era. So, too, Nxumalo, who only came in in May last year after the Local Government Election. All of the senior officials were appointed pre-Sithole and pre-Nxumalo. They don’t have ties with any of the officials. It’s a chance for the pair to truly wipe the slate clean and score massive points in the process. Just think of the positive goodwill for the city leadership from the citizens of Durban if they gets rid of bumbling officials. Politically it might be a risk given that some of the appointments were, without doubt, political, but it would really put Durbanites in Sithole’s and Nxumalo’s corner.

And that is massive for the men who will lead the city. After all, if this strong stance takes place at the seat of power in the metro – from the desks of the city manager and the mayor – then surely it will filter down.

Durban mayor James Nxumalo. PICTURE: TERRY HAYWOOD

For me, it was Nxumalo statement towards the end of the discussion that was the most promising.

“We must accept responsibility for what happens in this municipality. When things go well, we must take collective credit for it. But if things go wrong, we must take the blame as a collective,” he said.

At least the right people are saying the right things – but that’s not enough. It’s our money, our rates, our hard work and our city at stake here, and we expect something more than simply lip service. We expect action. And, with irregular expenditure having more than doubled and with Section 36 seemingly being abused, Lord knows it needs to happen.

Urgently.

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