Mismanagement had rendered the Makana municipality a disaster area and its residents, especially the poor and vulnerable, had suffered an extended period of neglect, decay and abuse, it was argued in the Grahamstown High Court on Thursday.
Advocate Izak Smuts SC, was arguing on behalf of the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM), which is asking the court to compel the provincial government to dissolve the municipal council and appoint a competent and accountable administrator pending an election for a new council.
The municipality and the provincial and national governments are opposing the application, saying a less extreme constitutional intervention into the disastrous municipality had already been initiated.
Smuts said there had been a gross failure by the local executive to meet its obligations to residents.
As a result there was a crisis in almost every aspect of governance in the municipality.
The UPM wants the court to declare the municipality in breach of its constitutional mandate to provide basic services and promote a safe and healthy environment.
Smuts said the provincial government had not chosen to act urgently in a crisis which warranted this extreme step.
The courts should therefore order it to.
But while legal counsel for both the provincial and national governments agreed that the situation in the municipality was calamitous, they contended that the province was already meeting its mandatory obligation to step in.
Advocate Jan Heunis SC, for premier Oscar Mabuyane, the provincial executive and the co-operative governance and traditional affairs department, said the province had done exactly what was required of it.
It had in May decided to step in to intervene in terms of section 139 (5) of the constitution. This is a less drastic step in terms of which the provincial government would impose a financial recovery plan.
He said the constitution and the Municipal Finance Management Act imposed an obligation on the province to follow this route if a municipality was in persistent material breach of its obligations as a result of a crisis in its financial affairs.
“[The provincial government] is not indifferent to the state of affairs. It has invoked this section to deal with the situation properly.”
He said it would prove more effective than simply firing a council which might, through elections, be replaced with an equally incompetent one in 90 days.
Counsel for the various spheres of government also argued that the court ordering the province to pursue a discretionary route when it had already embarked on a mandatory route to resolve the crisis would be an unacceptable crossing of the line in terms of the separation of powers.
The courtroom was packed with residents, members of the UPM as well as members of the Makana municipal council, including the mayor, Mzukisi Mpahlwa.
Outside, picketers carried placards descrying the collapse in municipal services and calling for real community representatives on council.
Judge Igna Stretch presided over the matter.