Mucking out the Durban City Hall

By Richard Pithouse · 22 Mar 2011

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Picture credit: Simisa
Picture credit: Simisa

A forensic investigation has concluded that more than R500 million has been misspent from the housing budget in Durban and recommended that criminal charges be brought against top officials, including the city’s manager Mike Sutcliffe.

It’s also emerged that tenders worth more than R80 million have been awarded to the immediate family of the city’s mayor, Obed Mlaba, and that the Mlaba Family Trust was part of an attempt to seize a tender worth R3 billion. There has also been renewed attention to the forty million in construction tenders awarded to the late John Mchunu, who was the chairperson of the ANC in Durban.

And intense public scrutiny has been focussed on Durban’s ultra-bling couple, S’bu and Shawn Mpisane, whose fabulous Rolls-Royce and Lamborghini life style seems to be based on incredible profiteering from public funds by way of R200 million in tenders. Houses built by the Mpisanes have been reported to be crumbling months after construction and have previously had to be demolished. 

It has been reported that the City built 9,387 low cost houses last year but that 6,007 would have to be rebuilt or rectified. It has also been reported that about 80% of the 27,000 RDP houses inspected by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Housing since May last year will have to be demolished and rebuilt.

It is abundantly clear that in Durban, and in other parts of the province too, the provision of public housing has a lot more to do with private profit and political patronage than the public good.

For years grassroots activists have been making consistent, specific and credible claims of endemic corruption in the eThekwini Municipality’s housing programme. When these claims have not been ignored they have been dismissed with sneering contempt or the complainants have been subject to blatant and often violent intimidation at the hands of the police, politically connected business people or party goons. Protests have been unlawfully banned and attacked by the police, activists have been arrested on trumped up charges, assaulted in detention and driven from their homes by party goons acting with clear police sanction

This has been accompanied by an increasingly strident state discourse that aims to criminalise not just the lawful and peaceful demonstration of popular dissent but even the basic survival strategies of poor people in an increasingly anti-poor city.

For almost a decade now, Sutcliffe, a notoriously authoritarian individual and an unrelentingly aggressive spin doctor, has perversely tried to marshal all of the moral and political authority of the struggles against apartheid in support of the predatory cabal that have captured the Durban City Hall. He also likes to tell people that he is a Marxist geographer inspired by the prison writings of the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. He is either entirely delusional or deliberately and cynically dishonest.

The popular struggles against apartheid were most certainly not for a system that would build houses vastly inferior in every respect to those built by apartheid. It’s equally certain that they were not for a system in which the provision of public housing would be captured by political elites for massive private profit.

Marxist geography is premised on an affirmation of the equal right to the city and a critique of the way in which capital structures cities in its own interests. One of its central insights is that when capital drives development, space itself becomes a commodity with the result that poor people are driven out of cities. Marxist geography also stresses the value of popular resistance and opposes the popular struggle for the right to the city against the exclusion consequent to the subordination of society to money.

But at every turn Sutcliffe has backed capital and its smarmy allies in the predatory political elite against people struggling for the right to the city in Durban. Shack dwellers, street traders, fisher folk and residents of the highly polluted areas in South Durban have all had to confront Sutcliffe as the snarling face of a ruthless and at times violent municipal agenda that has consistently put private profits before ordinary people and the public good. This has often come down to the simple brutality of the City sending out the police or private security firms to evict poor people like street traders and shack dwellers, at gunpoint.

The municipality’s developmental model – the privatisation of public transport and the construction of casinos, a convention centre, a theme park and stadium – is a monumentally stupid repetition of the standard neoliberal urban planning model. This deeply anti-social model is punted by elites around the world precisely because it produces massive public subsidies for private profit at the direct expense of the interests of ordinary people.

In 2003 the Municipal bus service in Durban was sold off for R70 million to Remant-Alton, a company chaired by the former ANC provincial treasurer Diliza Mji and run by Daniel Jagadasan who had been convicted of bribing a municipal official. After a number of bailouts, the municipality eventually bought the Remant-Alton bus fleet back for R405 million in 2008.

The uShaka theme park was built at a cost of R700 million. It was supposed to be self-sustaining but has been bailed out by the City at a cost of R450 million. An audit found that by June 2009 the park had suffered a net loss of R44,5 million and accumulated a deficit of R377,5 million. It also noted that there had been substantial irregular expenditure.

The Moses Mabhida stadium cost R3.1 billion and there is no viable plan for it to even be able to cover its running costs. It has been reported that it will cost the City R100 million to cover the losses expected at the stadium, theme park and convention centre during this financial year.

This is farcical and if it wasn’t so damn tragic the sight of the ANC presenting it as revolutionary in a city where hundreds of thousands of people don’t even have access to a toilet or their own tap, let alone a house, would be hilarious.

In a decent society, a state housing programme exists to provide the best possible housing for as many people as is possible. In Durban it is quite clear that the state housing programme has two key functions.

Its minor function is to re-segregate the city on the basis of class by moving poor people away from centrally located land that has high value on the market to peripheral dumping grounds with very little market value.

Its major function is to distribute political patronage by enriching the politically well connected. In a city with such a large proportion of its people living in shacks, this is disgraceful beyond any speaking of it.

On the basis of facts already in the public domain there can be no doubt that neither Sutcliffe, Mlaba or anyone else who has held a senior position in the municipal government in Durban is fit to hold public office in a democracy.

Provincial MEC for Local Government, Nomusa Dube, has said that she is serious about taking on the Herculean task of cleaning the muck out of the Durban City Hall. Whether or not the various investigations will be thorough, impartial and backed up with real action remains to be seen. But even if the accountants are willing and able to do their job well we must remember that what has gone so wrong in Durban is not only a matter for the accountants.

It is not the responsibility of accountants to take full measure of Sutcliffe and Mlaba’s complete lack of any vision for a just city, of the human cost of all this plunder and the long term political consequences of the authoritarianism and violence that the state and the party have deployed to defend it.

This is political work that has to be undertaken, freely and safely, by the people that live in this city. If the ANC is not prepared to guarantee this freedom, in practice as well as in principle, then the prospects for any real clean up of the Durban City Hall will be slim indeed.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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