||Today, Durban’s first working day since 2002 without City Manager Michael Sutcliffe, is a good moment to sigh in relief and consider why his successor, Sibusiso Sithole, can transform municipal leadership style and content. There is enormous damage to be undone, from destructive policies to crony capitalism and fraud to an exceptionally arrogant attitude.
Sutcliffe’s departure interview with the Financial Mail was revealing: “As far as the decisions go, there are no regrets; we did what was necessary and had to be done.”
No regrets? Wikipedia’s entry on Sutcliffe lists his legacy as “street renamings, the loss of the city’s Blue Flag beach status, illegally banning protests, banning posters, serious human rights abuses in the city’s housing program, the failed privatization of the city’s bus system, allegations of spin-doctoring, the failed uShaka Marine World, threats to withdraw advertising from newspapers employing journalists critical of the municipality, lack of action against environmental destruction, favouritism toward ANC-aligned individuals and businesses, unlawful and at times violent violations of the basic rights of street traders and shack dwellers and corruption.”
In The Daily News last week, Sutcliffe was adamant, “I have never been and will never be involved in fraud and corruption.” Yet even the provincial African National Congress requested a forensic investigation after the auditor-general’s 2009-10 report identified “irregular expenditure of R535 million” that year and “irregular housing contracts worth R3.5 billion over 10 years.” Sutcliffe and three top officials were implicated.
Contracts for more than 3000 houses (at R220 million) involved the notorious Mpisane family, now facing multiple prosecutions. In 2010, Sutcliffe told The Daily News, The reports that these houses were built to sub-standard levels are absolute nonsense and part of media frenzy. I challenge anyone to visit every single one of those houses and they will see that the houses are not falling apart and in fact have been built to standards much higher than RDP houses elsewhere.”
The National Home Builders' Registration Council then found defects in more than 1 000 Mpisane houses.
The closest to a confession by Sutcliffe was last week in The Daily News: “We have not followed every single supply chain mechanism in the book because we needed to ensure service delivery took place efficiently. We have been able to build more than 22 000 houses in one year because we fast-tracked procedures.”
But many thousands more houses should have been built, much more quickly and with much better quality and less cronyism. By the time of the World Cup, Durban’s housing backlog stood at 234 000 units, yet as the Academy for Science in South Africa determined last May, the annual addition to the city’s low-income housing stock had dropped from 16 000 to 9 500 by 2009, and “given the current budget the backlog will only be cleared by 2040.”
In mid-2008, Sutcliffe had told the Mail&Guardian, “we can address the housing backlog in the city within seven or eight years.
One reason for a worsening housing crisis was that Sutcliffe diverted funding from city reserves into building Moses Mabhida Stadium, notwithstanding a next-door world-class rugby stadium available for upgrading. Cost overruns skyrocketed the prestige project’s price from R1.8 to R3.1 billion, with the usual suspects winning construction contracts: failed bus privatizer Remant Alton and Point development flop Dolphin Whispers, the Broederbonder firm Bruinette Kruger Stoffberg, Group 5/WBHO with Tokyo Sexwale’s and Bulelani Ngcuka’s Mvelaphanda group, and Vivian Reddy’s Edison Power.
The combination of incompetence and arrogance proved hugely expensive under Sutcliffe’s reign, for as opposition city councilor Dean Macpherson put it a year ago, he “didn’t see fit to consult with the Sharks before Mabhida was built and now we have a stadium that the Sharks won’t move to, basically stands empty and will cost the ratepayers of Durban billions of rands to fund in the future.” Sutcliffe’s hope for justifying Mabhida Stadium by hosting the 2020 Olympics was dashed in 2011 by rare national budgetary common sense.
Last year featured many such allegations against Sutcliffe, as an open feud with former city mayor Obed Mlaba left blood dripping from knives in both their backs. Last January, Sutcliffe publicly announced that he wanted another five-year contract. But he had made too many mistakes and enemies, and his ally leading the provincial ANC, John Mchunu, had died the year before.
Other complaints mounted: Sutcliffe’s supersized salary and bonuses; brutality to street children and ordinary fisherfolk trying to use beach piers; the celebrated 2010 beachfront rehab’s still-empty storefronts and dead palm trees; and the unprocedural street renaming, culminating on November 30 in a Supreme Court decision against Sutcliffe on the first nine changes.
Sutcliffe’s last month on the job must have been even more frustrating, beginning on December 2 with yet another defeat in court against activists demanding the right to march in central Durban. Opposed to the COP17 UN climate summit, their desired route passed the US Consulate, City Hall and the International Convention Centre, which was approved by a magistrate.
Then came Sutcliffe’s revenge. “Obviously smarting from his failure to impose his will on our right to assembly and protest, he hired 150-200 ‘Host City Volunteers’,” explained Rehad Desai of the Democratic Left Front. “Paid R180 for their services,” these “Green Bomber goons” – as Desai called them to remind of Robert Mugabe’s paramilitary – wore distinctive green tracksuits with Ethekwini and COP17 logos.
After seeing critical posters at the December 3 march, Sutcliffe’s volunteers began “singing pro-Zuma and pro-COP17 slogans. Their presence on a climate justice demonstration remains a mystery. [Climate activists were] denied water, beaten with fists and had their banners torn down. The rural women, representing countries from all over Africa, were taunted by certain Green Bombers with crude sexist abuse.”
Five days later at City Hall, Desai and two other activists from Greenpeace and ActionAid were attacked by the Green Bombers, simply for holding up posters: “Zuma stand with the poor not the corporations.” Remarked Sutcliffe in The Witness newspaper the next day, “They deserved that reaction from people. People were outraged, especially after what happened at the weekend. Why vent when they had the opportunity when the president had come to listen? Surely that’s not right.”
To ‘vent’ by silently holding up a poster in City Hall deserves a beating?
Academics like myself might label this thuggish ideology ‘neoliberal nationalism’: a vindictive, anti-poor deployment of state power and resources, combined with revolutionary-sounding bombast, reviving Thabo Mbeki’s ‘talk-left, walk-right’ moves. We saw this most vividly in Sutcliffe’s 2009 attempt to evict the Early Morning Market at Warwick Junction on behalf of a crony’s shopping mall project, which only mass community protests reversed following a late-night police attack.
Nevertheless, many of us anxiously await Sutcliffe’s promised autobiographical account of his nine years in power, because his vast extent of misrule needs book-length consideration. At the very least, the ubiquitous political potholes dug by Sutcliffe across Durban provide Sithole an excellent road map of where to make ideological, policy, management and attitude U-turns.
Patrick Bond’s recent books are Durban’s Climate Gamble (Unisa Press) and Politics of Climate Justice (UKZN Press).