eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality vs COVID-19: 90 days into the Lockdown

Since the declaration of the state of national disaster by the Minister of Cooperative Government on 18 March 2020, and the subsequent announcement of a Lockdown by the President on 26 March, municipalities have implemented various measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This article analyses some of the measures taken by eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality (Metro) more than 90 days into the Lockdown. While disaster management is a shared national and provincial government competence, municipalities play a crucial role during disasters in terms of their constitutional functions (listed under Schedule 4B and 5B) and their assigned functions (s99 and 126), such as housing.

The expanded local government mandate under COVID-19

On 25 March 2020, the Minister of Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) issued Directions to municipalities, which required them to perform various functions, some falling within their existing mandate, and others being new or expanded mandates. For instance, municipalities are required to provide potable water to all communities in order to increase personal hygiene and thereby reduce transmission of COVID-19. It must be noted that while the supply of potable water is ordinarily a municipal function, prior to COVID-19 hitting the shores of South Africa not all communities had access to water. The eThekwini Metro has ramped up the provision of water and sanitation services to high population density settlements, rural communities, informal settlements, and public facilities. While this is a mammoth task, the Metro has hastened its efforts by providing potable water sources, such as static tanks and standpipes, to help with sanitation efforts to underserviced areas in eThekwini.

eThekwini Metro has also taken on new functions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the provision of food to the indigent, provision of meals and psycho-social support for the homeless, and the sanitisation of public places.

The Metro has tasked its ward councillors to distribute food parcels/vouchers to help the indigent in all its wards, with each ward receiving 1000 food parcels. However, the distribution programme is characterised by some challenges. There are allegations that the food parcels are being politicised, and are only being distributed to African National Congress (ANC) members. Although the Mayor of eThekwini, Mxolisi Kaunda, vehemently rebutted these allegations when he accounted before the National Assembly, it may be difficult to determine what is actually happening on the ground. The second challenge is that while it is noble that the Metro is providing food parcels to each of the wards, the wards do not have the same population sizes, therefore, giving each ward 1000 food parcels may not take into account the wards that have a larger number of households facing food insecurity. Last, the rolling out of the food assistance programme was delayed, leaving many households hungry.

The Metro has a responsibility to provide temporary shelter to the homeless at least insofar as it relates to evicted homeless persons, as decided by the Constitutional Court. During the Lockdown, the Metro has gone beyond this duty by providing meals and psycho-social support to the homeless, including managing withdrawal symptoms for substance abuse. The Metro has also prioritised the protection of vulnerable groups having set up twelve shelters accommodating 1 704 homeless people, including women and children. When eThekwini opened its temporary shelters for the homeless, it became aware that a homeless student from UNISA was in one of the shelters, and this led to a campaign to help him continue with his studies during the Lockdown. Well-wishers donated a laptop to enable him to engage in online learning, and a service station offered him a job as a petrol-attendant. The Metro also arranged to place him in a shelter more conducive for his studies and preparation for his examinations. The support given to the homeless UNISA Student in eThekwini puts a flashlight on the absence of social safety nets and gaps in our tertiary education system, such as food insecurity and homelessness. This brings home the reality that where other spheres of government fail, municipalities are often the last resort, often at their own cost.

Regarding health, it could be argued that eThekwini Metro is exceeding its ‘municipal health’ mandate. On one hand, it can be argued that the sanitisation of public transportation facilities and local markets amounts to municipal health as it constitutes ‘preventing communicable diseases’ as per the definition of municipal health in section 1 of the National Health Act of 2003. However, on the other hand, other health functions being performed by the Metro exceed its municipal health mandate, for example, developing disease control systems- geo-mapping, working with epidemiologists, mobilising clinical expertise, and implementing National Institute for Communicable Diseases guidelines through contact tracing and testing, community screening and testing and mass testing.

The Metro is also going beyond its regular functions of cleaning of public ablution facilities and refuse collection, and has taken on a new function of sanitising public facilities. It has increased its efforts to improve sanitation by sanitising and providing soap and sanitiser dispensers in informal settlements and public places, such as markets and taxi ranks. The Metro has also distributed bar soaps and sanitisers to about 21 000 of its formal housing units.

Finally, the Metro has embarked on a public awareness campaign, using loud hailing, posters and pamphlets, to help spread information about COVID-19, and personal hygiene. With the support of local business persons, the Metro is also running mobile clinics.

COVID-19 has imposed a huge strain on the Metro budget

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an indelible impact on the revenue base of municipalities as most economic activities ground to a halt during level 5 and 4 Lockdown, save for listed essential services. The closure of non-essential businesses and the restriction of movement of people, tied with job and wage losses, has tied the hands of businesses and individuals, making it difficult for municipalities to raise revenue from their own sources. Local revenue from tourism-related activities (including from museums and art galleries) have also dried up. According to the Mayor Kaunda’s submission to National Assembly on 14 May 2020, the Lockdown had cost eThekwini R1.5 billion in lost revenue as of 30 April, and R565 million in unfunded mandates. Like other municipalities, the Metro is performing additional functions without receiving concomitant financial resources from the national and provincial governments. For example, the Metro has expended financial resources from its own pocket towards the provision of food parcels to community members, which ordinarily is not a municipal function. The performance of such unfunded mandates has a huge impact on municipal finances.

eThekwini has established structures to coordinate municipal efforts against COVID-19

eThekwini Metro is actively involved in COVID-19 response structures developing, coordinating and monitoring strategies around COVID-19. First, the Metro has established a COVID-19 Municipal Command Team, headed by the Mayor and the MEC for Education Kwazi Mshengu, who is also the Operation Sukuma Sakhe (OSS) District Champion (the OSS is a provincial effort to take the government to the people). The Command Team is important for the COVID-19 response as it facilitates a coordinated response to the disaster. Second, the Metro has established a new COVID-19 Joint Operation Centre (JOC) which comprises of doctors and technical officials who advise the Department of Health and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) about COVID-19 safety measures. Third, the Mayor submitted that eThekwini has a ‘Multi-Disciplinary Task Team comprising of all units of the organisation’ which meets daily on online platforms to coordinate a comprehensive response to COVID-19 in the workplace. Fourth, the Metro has established the Recovery Fund Oversight Committee that oversees the COVID-19 Fund administered by the Metro’s Treasury with advisory support from business leaders. Concern has been raised about the lack of transparency in the appointment of these business leaders. Finally, eThekwini has established a COVID-19 War Room, which consists of the political leadership and senior management of the Metro and meets twice a week. Its duty is to make and implement decisions on COVID-19 interventions. The ‘War Room’ is linked to the provincial War on Poverty campaign adopted in KwaZulu-Natal in 2011. The Metro’s efforts of institutionalising COVID-19 response should be commended. However, the multiplicity of structures involved in COVID-19 response may result in unnecessary overlap and duplication of efforts at a time when resources are scarce.

The provision of economic relief

Municipalities can decide to levy property rates and surcharges on user fees or allow tax holidays in terms of section 229(1) of the Constitution. eThekwini Metro has not taken the route adopted by other municipalities, such as Stellenbosch Municipality, which has given a payment holiday on property rates, without interest from 01 April to 30 June 2020. The granting of rates holidays is a difficult option to take. While rates holidays can help local communities and businesses to cope with the financial strain resulting from economic challenges, they reduce local government’s already waning revenues.

The closure of national borders and the Lockdown restrictions on business operations have negatively affected businesses. Tourism has been one of the hardest-hit sectors in eThekwini, which is one of the top tourist destinations in South Africa. In order to assist this sector, the eThekwini Metro has made provision for owners of Bed and Breakfasts and guest houses to apply to pay residential property rates, which are lower than commercial rates, as from 18 May 2020. However, there seem to be no rates holidays for residential or other commercial property owners. For informal traders, the relief comes in the form of a six-month rental holiday and a zero cost of business licencing fees for 2020/2021 financial year. It is not yet clear how the rental holiday will apply to informal traders. The Metro is also moving to collaborate with online platforms, through Innovate Durban, to help township businesses deliver goods to local consumers.

As a means to provide economic relief to individuals, the Metro has also reconnected 3644 households that were in arrears. The Metro had initially anticipated that it was going to provide economic relief for the duration of the Lockdown by reconnecting consumers whose accounts were in arrears during the Lockdown, and has done so to date. However, the protracted Lockdown at different alert levels, the financial pressure on the municipality, and the long wait for national support have forced the Metro to reconsider its benevolence. It is currently inviting its debtors to conclude debt agreements with the Metro (until 30 June), in terms of which accumulated interest would be written off, and debtors will accumulate no new interest during the term of the agreement. Debtors would have to commit to repay at least half of their debt by the end of June 2020 and this economic relief arrangement is only available to debtors with debt overdue by 90 days. However, in light of the job and wage losses being experienced due to reduced business activity during the Lockdown, debtors may be unable to meet this deadline. Moreover, debtors already owing three months in arrears might already have been struggling to make ends meet, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and are thus likely to struggle to meet the 30 June deadline.

Conclusion
As of 20 June 2020, eThekwini Metro was still a COVID-19 hot spot. The Metro has taken bold, but necessary steps to curb the further transmission of COVID-19.  It is performing various functions that exceed its mandate, such as providing food to the indigent, and public health services (beyond municipal health) using its own resources. How will the national and provincial governments assist municipalities, such as eThekwini, to cover shortfalls in their budgets attributed to the expanded municipal functions but also to deal with the loss of revenue due to reduced payment of user fees and property rates? How will eThekwini promote local economic recovery during and after COVID-19? What is the fate of the homeless after the Lockdown ends?  These are some of the major questions that are confronting the local government sector which require investigation. With the rising infection rates, eThekwini (and other municipalities) have a long road ahead. Municipalities are at the forefront of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, but to succeed in this fight they will need the support of the national and provincial government, the business sector and members of the community.

 

by Michelle Rufaro Maziwisa, Post-Doctoral Researcher

 

The publication of the Bulletin is made possible with the support provided by the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the Bavarian State Chancellery.