When Rhodes University staff and students took to the streets to protest about being without water for more than nine days, President Jacob Zuma responded and promised to take action. Water & environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa is now tasked with getting whatever funds and expertise are necessary to fix crumbling water infrastructure and restore permanent water supply in the municipality. But this swift action belies the real problem the ANC faces in the Eastern Cape.
Makana epitomises the paralysing state of municipal financial mismanagement in the province. Not a single one of the province's 45 municipalities received a clean audit in the 2011/2012 financial year. Seventeen municipali-ties got disclaimers and two secured adverse opinions. Makana was given its third consecutive audit disclaimer in 2011/2012.
In the 2012/2013 municipal financial year, Makana overspent its capital budget by 15% but underspent its capital budget for water by 30%. In addition, poor electricity infrastructure has resulted in power failures and this budget was underspent by 40%.
So where was the overspending? The department of sport & recreation's budget accounted for most of it, being overspent by 80 times. The municipality also overspent its operating budget by 44%, leaving it with a R50m deficit.
In April this year, outgoing auditor-general Terence Nombembe had frank discussions with Zuma's cabinet and Eastern Cape premier Noxolo Kiviet in which he explained that infighting between councillors and a critical lack of skills and the will to manage state funds were killing municipal government and, as a result, reflecting poorly on the ANC's ability to govern.
ANC headquarters, Luthuli House, has ordered the Eastern Cape leadership to swing into damage control. Local government & traditional affairs MEC Mlibo Qoboshiyane has threatened that if municipalities don't have their books in order by the end of this financial year, or if any receives another disclaimer, he'll be firing and even laying criminal charges against officials.
The Amatola water board, the presidency and the provincial government visited the area last year and again in August this year after water delivery dried up, promising to "thrash out solutions".
The ANC's chief whip in the Makana municipality, Vuyani Kolisi, isn't worried about losing support. He told the FM that though party supporters in the municipality had been "very angry" about water stoppages and other service problems, "they understand" when the "problems" the council faces are explained to them.
"People are so positive here. The ANC will increase our majority in 2016 by winning 80% of the vote," he says.
The head of the Public Service Accountability Monitor in Grahamstown, Jay Kruuse, and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University political scientist Enaleen Draai agree that the swing vote from the ANC to the DA and other parties in the province will be "marginal". They believe that, as in previous elections, older ANC voters will remain loyal or stay away while the unemployed youth may opt to vote for another party or stay away.
But DA Makana councillor Marcelle Booysen says things are changing in the Eastern Cape. In the 2011 election the DA took two ANC-held wards that span informal settlements in Makana. Booysen says this is "precisely because ANC voters are starting to realise that they're not getting what they've been loyally voting for". The DA hopes to win the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan council in the 2016 local election.
The Unemployed People's Movement's (UPM) Grahamstown branch, which has been taking up grievances with the council on behalf of residents and representing residents in legal action against the muni-cipality, believes that shoddy municipal services will have some impact on the number of votes cast for the ANC. But the UPM's Ayanda Kota says this will be limited, partly because the ANC is skilled at shoring up its power base by using "suppression, intimidation and co-option" tactics.
Makana protest records confirm what Kota says. The municipality never refused applications made under the Regulation of Gatherings Act (1973) until the UPM became active in the area.
"The rejections aren't legal and the municipality will do everything possible to frustrate efforts by critics to protest," says Kota. Rhodes University has raised the same concerns. The chair of the Media & Information Society at Rhodes University, Prof Jane Duncan, argues that under Zuma's administration, it is becoming more difficult across SA to use official legal channels to exercise the right to protest.
Kota adds: "Don't underestimate the ANC's power to intimidate voters and silence critics with patronage. This system works perfectly for the ANC, as we've seen with it handing out food parcels before by-elections."
Siyanda Centwa of the Abahlali housing lobby group in Grahamstown says people are realising that the ANC is not "a principled member of the Left ", as it claims.
"These protests aren't just about municipal services, they are about people trying to assert their humanity. The ANC has lost concern for poor people's humanity. It only responds when Rhodes University protests. The townships in Makana regularly have no water. They can't afford to buy water in bottles, and when shacks catch fire, people die because there's no water," he says.
Left-wing voices like these are set to become more vociferous in the next elections and will force the ANC to justify its policies more than it's had to in the past. The rise of the independent councillor is also a potentially worrying trend for the party. These are charismatic, civic-minded leaders in communities who are usually former members of the ANC.
The DA and Cope realise it isn't easy for ANC voters to give their vote to another party, so they often support these candidates with the promise of forming coalition governments with them. There was a 14% increase in independent candidate registrations in the 2011 poll.