Government charges over sewage to ‘cover their own rear end’

Zoar, under the Kannaland Local Municipality, is the only Western Cape municipality facing charges.

Zoar, under the Kannaland Local Municipality, is the only Western Cape municipality facing charges.

Published May 8, 2024


While the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) says it has lodged 78 criminal cases against municipalities allegedly in contravention of environmental legislation, it has been accused of doing this to “cover its own rear end”.

DWS said the charges related to sewage spills and other alleged environmental contraventions.

ActionSA’s Michael Beaumont welcomed the criminal charges but said they did “not go nearly far enough”.

Beaumont added that seldom do the charges lodged go on to prosecution: “The laying of these charges amounts to little more than national government covering its considerable rear end. Charges have been laid before and the few that make it to prosecution have resulted in charges being pleaded down to considerable fines.

“So, one tier of government fines another tier of government and the residents of these sewage-flooded communities forego municipal budget allocations that could address these issues ... Where municipalities fail to adhere to sewage infrastructure turnaround plans, they must be placed under administration and competent administrators must be installed to ensure these plans are implemented.”

He said that the municipalities in question were located in the Free State, Gauteng, Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga and represented “some of the worst offenders for long-term sewage infrastructure failures that have caused the contamination of river and groundwater systems”.

Zoar, under the Kannaland Local Municipality, is the only Western Cape municipality facing charges.

“The absence of municipalities in Eastern Cape and KZN is difficult to comprehend,” Beaumont added.

Enquiries to Kannaland, Joburg, Govan Mbeki and Thaba Chweu municipalities – among the municipalities that face criminal charges – were not answered by deadline.

Beaumont further said: “ActionSA contends that the buddy-buddy relationship between tiers of government led by the ANC has been a major part of this problem. The relationship between tiers of government, as envisioned in the Constitution, was intended to provide accountability when our constitutional rights are being infringed upon.”

DWS spokesperson Wisane Mavasa said the department has recorded 88 cases involving 52 municipalities across nine provinces.

“(We have) 78 cases where charges have been laid and an active investigation is under way with five cases being at the prosecuting authority (preparing to go to trial or in court). From 2017 to date five cases have been ruled upon and the department is monitoring the implementation of the court decisions. All five were plea and sentence agreements.

“The department has opened the majority of these cases itself, however, when a member of the public or another organ of state opens a case it is handed to the department’s environmental management inspectors who are designated to carry out these investigations and build the dockets before it is referred to the prosecuting authority for a decision,” said Mavasa.

Criminal cases are brought against municipalities that fail to implement action plans in an effort to attain compliance.

“Where a municipality in this case receives a notice or directive and provides an action plan to address the findings and implements that action plan the department does not pursue criminal prosecution,” said Mavasa.

Cape Times