The Kgetlengrivier precedent: Why Koster and Swartruggens residents’ action matters so much

Kgetlengrivier is a dysfunctional municipality by any measure - one of many under administration in the North West but a particularly important one after the North West High Court overturned an attempt by the municipality to halt a ratepayers' court-mandated right to take over the provision of water and sanitation earlier this month.

This was after the Koster and Swartruggen's ratepayers' association Kgetlengrivier Concerned Citizens was accompanied by the sheriff of the court to enable it to take over the running of the new but derelict R144 million water and waste water works in Kgetlengrivier last month.

The action had been sanctioned by a December North West High Court order enabling the group to do so which also threatened Municipal Manager RJ Mogale with 90 days' imprisonment which was suspended on condition that raw sewage be cleared up within 10 days.

Notwithstanding this threat the municipality focused on responding by reassuring municipal workers of their job security and trying to resist the court order insinuating a racially motivated and allegedly illegal takeover – an accusation rejected by the courts last week. In addition the municipality was ordered along with the provincial government to pay Kgetlengrivier Concerned Citizens' R7.5 million expenses spent on rehabilitating pumps and renting generators to restore basic water services in addition to their legal costs.

Already the case has been flagged as one that could set a precedent for other disgruntled citizens.

Aside from dressing down the municipality for its failure to honour its constitutional mandate it suggests a new route by which residents can bypass inter-governmental structures. Rather than simply insisting on instituting conventional remedies such as provincially instituted administration (which already applies in Kgetlengrivier) it allowed residents to directly take charge of service delivery at least for an interim period.

For capable residents this is an appealing outcome and a good result for legal action as the remedial action can take place with readily observable results especially if relatively affordable as in the case of Koster's water works. Low capital options like refuse removal are likely to be especially viable.

But there is a further political significance arising from the ruling. Outsourcing whether by residents or other agents may become an increasingly justifiable option if basic services are likely to be better delivered by a contractor – something likely to rattle labour.

Trade unions have already expressed concern about a lack of consultation in Kgetlengrivier.

In truth municipal workers played a part in the sequence of events after having abandoned the municipality's new sewage plant in 2018 and again in 2020 resulting in vandalism and theft and eventually a water outage which opened the way for a court order and the basis for residents' control of the plant.

What may concern local politicians even more is the potential for realignment of interest groups – across race and class lines – as is reported to be the case in Kgetlengrivier in support of service delivery. This may further erode the ANC alliance's dominance.

ANC support by Kgetlengrivier residents came in at 61% in the 2019 general elections' provincial polls a recovery from the 2016 local elections' 56% but a long way off the high of 75% in the 2006 local elections. This shift could be facilitated by a rise of independents focused on service delivery should residents' social media grievances regarding water provision during the Covid-19 pandemic translate at the polls.

Furthermore the case may show a fission between national and provincial or regional interests. Indicative of Kgetlengrivier's appalling situation the national Ministers of Environmental Affairs Human Settlements water and sanitation which was a respondent (along with the Bojanala district) agreed to abide by the court's decision effectively leaving the local government to take responsibility for the crisis.   

By extension provincial oversight was effectively disavowed by national distancing with the North West province along with the municipality and labour also resisting the High Court ruling. The North West's Local Government MEC Mmoloki Cwaile is said to have argued: 

"We will never agree that the constitutional mandate of the municipality should be hijacked by the communities. It is irregular. It is a serious error we are correcting on our internal capacities at the municipality."

Cwaile's comments starkly show up the entrenched but now threatened faith in the status quo that courts and ratepayers no longer appear to be willing to endure or obfuscate with allegations of race or "hijacking".

Outsourced operations

To be sure a legal case like that of Kgetlengrivier requires deep pockets and a unity of purpose and commitment but the precedent is in now place for others to streamline off. If a municipality is poorly enough managed and inter-governmental intervention has not yielded an improvement its operations can be outsourced to ensure access to basic services.

This conclusion has seismic ramifications for ratepayers' associations and communities that are increasingly likely to find common grievances across traditional divides and perhaps then for the very landscape of South African politics.

There will almost certainly be further kickback from organised labour and concern from those overseeing the sector that there is now a bypass mechanism in place for disgruntled residents. But in an election year it would however behove political parties to consider carefully just how dismal service delivery must be for this situation to have emerged.