It seems that Carte Blanche’s much-publicised exposé entitled Knysna’s Sad Collapse, which aired on DStv Sunday, 18 Feb, has been the final straw for many residents. Perhaps it takes having a surprise visitor checking out your house to realise how badly things are falling apart.
The Knysna segment of the popular investigative journalism program certainly was a no-holds-barred report on Knysna’s dirty laundry. After leading with sound bytes from Western Cape Premier Alan Winde’s State of the Nation Debate speech, which described a decomposing body found in a Knysna Municipal Water reservoir, the Carte Blanche camera crew, along with journalist Erin Bates, took thousands of viewers through the town’s worst issues.
“Knysna’s decay is undeniable,” she reported, “Visible signs of infrastructure collapse are everywhere.” As the cameras captured a tragic tapestry of the town, including mountains of waste in the CBD, communities left without water in Hornlee, sewage spills into streams running into the lagoon and desperate residents trying their utmost to survive despite these challenges, the journalist highlighted the fact that not only are Knysna’s people suffering, but also the environment – particularly the unique ecosystem of the estuary.
“This story is as much about politics and the failure of local government as it is about the survival of the Knysna seahorse,” she said, later suggesting that in its current state, Knysna was a ticking time bomb for both.
Looking for answers, she did not find them in her brief interview with Executive Mayor Aubrey Tsengwa. He described the challenges as ‘small’ and insisted that Knysna Municipality may have cash-flow problems but was certainly not bankrupt.
Bates had a more meaningful discussion with long-time Knysna businessman John Metelerkamp, who had also been her ‘guide’ through part of the tour. He told her the town’s infrastructure had not kept pace with the exploding population numbers. He did not believe the blame lay entirely at the feet of the current coalition leadership but goes back years. “It doesn’t matter who rules the council,” he said. “Their focus has been on politics, not on infrastructure, not on running the town.” Metelerkamp also told her that, in his view, getting answers from the municipality had become nigh on impossible.
But the chat was not all negative. The businessman said he believed that there is a groundswell amongst Knysna locals to get involved in saving the town.
As the heart-wrenching 20-minute documentary on the ‘2023 Dorpie of the Year’ came to a close, Bates aimed a pointed question at members of the current Knysna Council.
“Will the politicians prioritise self-interest, or will they get down to business and save the jewel of the Garden Route? In the meantime, it’s the ordinary citizens who will pay the price for years of incompetent management of this municipality. Their once pristine environment is at the mercy of those paid to protect it.”
Whilst many organisations and indeed individuals have spent huge sums of money, time and energy over the last few years trying to keep the Greater Knysna Municipality from becoming one of those South African towns, it seems Sunday night’s Carte Blanche may have provided a catalyst for much more community involvement.
One particular WhatsApp group, set up last year under the name ‘Objections Knysna Rates’, has exploded in numbers in the last few days. Pierre van Biljon, now one of the group admins, told us he posted a message along the lines of ‘I’ve had enough’ on the group on Saturday night after discovering the shocking state of the water. By Sunday morning, the number of members in the group was up to 300. By Sunday night, so many people had joined it that it had exceeded the maximum number of members allowed (1024), and a sister group had to be launched.
All members were decrying the state of Knysna, and most wanted to know what they could do to help put it right. It soon became evident that a sense of order and an action plan was needed, and Pierre stepped up to the plate to get the ball rolling. “I don’t believe Knysna’s infrastructure is below the maintenance line,” he told us on a call, ‘But it is close. And to rebuild it would be exceptionally hard and way too expensive.”
Pierre spent most of Monday in his unexpected leadership position seeking advice and formulating suggested action options, which he was able to share in detail with group members later that afternoon.
He suggested that the seemingly popular idea of withholding payment of rates was not an option worth considering as a lengthy court battle may well fail and would leave residents with substantial legal costs to pay on top of any withheld rates.
A second option would be for the business/private sector to take on the municipality’s role – in other words, do the maintenance and repairs themselves. This would bring the fastest results but be exceptionally expensive.
A third option would be a ‘special ratepayer’s vote’: This would entail adding an ad-hoc rate to residents’ monthly accounts that would be specifically dedicated (with independent monitoring) to achieving specific goals, such as repairing sewer and water lines. This option, however, can only be decided and implemented with a majority vote of the representative ratepayers within the municipal region, which would no doubt present a serious challenge.
But Pierre is quick to point out that these are only suggestions and that the first and most crucial step would be to hold a public meeting to elect a steering committee and map out an action plan. “It’s as simple as this,” he says, “Not one of us has all the answers, but if we pool our ideas and resources and work together as a team, great things can happen.”
If you would like to become part of this movement, please email email@example.com.
(See page 3 of ‘Latest issue’ for a statement from the offices of Knysna’s Executive Mayor Aubrey Tsengwa .)