In a virtual meeting, the Western Cape Department of Local Government briefed the Committee on the state of readiness and preparedness ahead of the upcoming fire season.
The Department outlined its strategy to fight fires more effectively, including prevention, protection, as well as detection. The department said the Western Cape is under severe pressure from climate change, alien invasive plants and trees, and the urban/wild land interface.
There are training challenges as a result of the COVID-19 disaster and the need to adhere to lockdown regulations. The department also expressed concern about the inability to roll out training programmes due to financial constraints.
The Department also outlined its policy on deploying aircraft to fight fire and how this has been improved over the years.
The issue of land invasion and illegal electricity connections was identified as one of the key drivers of fires during the fire season.
Members wanted to know how many fires were a result of human action as opposed to naturally occurring fires. They wanted to know how the decision to deploy resources is made.
Members also wanted to know how municipalities are reacting to the issue of land invasions and the accompanying illegal electricity connections. They wanted to know what preventative measures are in place to prevent loss of life and property at informal settlements.
The Department further briefed the Committee on the status of all Special Investigation Unit investigations in municipalities in the Western Cape. It said there was a dramatic increase in allegations of fraud over the last two years.
The source of the complaints are usually whistle-blowers, but some come directly from the Premier, Minister, and Heads of Department. The MEC for Local Government, as well as the municipality, have a responsibility to take action against alleged misconduct and/or maladministration – dual responsibility.
The Department said the Auditor-General was of the view that municipal leadership did not provide adequate oversight.
The Department outlined the process of determining which allegations have merit, and which are frivolous. They also explained what happens once an allegation is assessed to have merit.
The Department provided a status report on cases involving municipalities, that have been initiated and concluded, and those that are still under investigation.
Members wanted to know how whistle-blowers are protected against victimisation. Members wanted to why Kanaland Municipality was not on the list of municipalities under investigation given there has been so much law enforcement activity in that municipality.
They wanted to know the details of the high-level assessment to determine which cases are frivolous, and which have merit. They wanted to know if there are time-frames inked to the issues raised buy the investigators’ reports.
Members questioned the ratio of allegations that have been deemed to be frivolous. They wanted to know why the requests were made to the Speakers of Council. They wanted to know if a whistle-blowers’ confidentiality was guaranteed?
Members asked how agencies were collaborating with regards to the investigations.
Briefing by the Department on the Disaster Management State of Readiness for the 2020/21 Wildfire Season
Mr Colin Deiner, Chief Director: Disaster Management and Fire Rescue Services, Western Cape Department of Local Government, said despite the province’s natural beauty, it was the most disaster-prone province in South Africa.
He said 2008 was the fourth costliest year since 1980, in terms of insured fire events. He said the Western Cape region is under severe pressure from climate change, alien invasive plants and trees, and the urban/wild land interface.
He conceded that the statistics were from two years ago, and this was because it takes time for statistics to be collected and reported. 17 000 fires have been attended to by the Fire and Rescue Services.
Excluding the Imizamo Yethu Fire Disaster, approximately 2000 fires were reported in informal settlements, involving close to 5 900 individual units, resulting in 142 fatalities.
He said roughly 9 000 wildfires have been reported. He also said two of the largest fires experienced in the Western Cape over the past 50 years have been outside the recognised wildfire season.
He said the Knysna Fire destroyed 973 houses and displaced 4 000 people, with eight fatalities . It had an approximate cost of R4 billion.
The Garden Route fire destroyed three structures. However, the affected area was four times the size of the Knysna fire and resulted in eight fatalities.
He said the Betty’s Bay fire destroyed 38 houses and resulted in two fatalities. The fire burned for 20 days with an estimated emergency response cost of R8 million.
He said the wildland urban interface occurs when homes ignite during fires. The wildland fire suppression operations successfully control 97.99% of all wildfires at initial attack.
Homes would ignite and burn simultaneously only during extreme wildfire conditions, and can overwhelm firefighting efforts. Extreme fire behaviour conditions account for 1-3% of wildfires that escape the Service’s initial attack.
He said the continuous urbanisation is having a massive effect on the wildfire season. He said the rapid expansion of informal settlements means there is no fire-break between the informal settlement and wildland and this is why there is a problem of Wildland Urban Interface.
He said the best way to resolve the problem is through Integrated Fire Management. He said this is a series of actions that includes fire awareness activities; fire prevention activities; prescribed burning; resource-sharing and co-ordination; fire detection; fire suppression; fire damage rehabilitation; and research at local, provincial, and national levels in order to create sustainable and well-balanced environment, reduce unwanted wildfires and promote the beneficial use of fire.
Mr Deiner said this approach takes into account the economic, social, and economic impacts of fire.
Training is essential to ensure operational readiness and survival of firefighters in extreme fire conditions. In 2014, a departmental survey found that only 15% of the province’s municipal firefighters were adequately trained for their position. An intensive training programme was implemented and by 2019, 95% had been trained in the various skills required (basic firefighting; vehicle rescue; technical rope rescue; wildfire safety).
He said due to the practical nature of firefighting and rescue training, it was not possible to present training programmes in 2020 due to the COVID-19 disaster. He expressed concern that financial 2constraints will impact on the Department’s ability to provide training to firefighters, and this will have an impact in the coming years.
Fire Preparedness and Readiness
Mr Deiner said the Department focused on prevention, with an active awareness campaign; municipal by laws; no burn permits issued over high risk days; as well as fuel load reduction.
With regards to protection, he emphasised the creation of fire buffer zones ; the identification and mapping of natural and man-made barriers; creation, maintenance and mapping of a fire break register.
When it comes to detection, he said the service relied on early detection and reporting; CCTV cameras (City, Eden district, Cape Pine Plantations); public reporting through numbers and means; as well as the Advanced Fire Information System – a network of satellites that is able track a fire larger than five square-metres, across the African continent.
He said the primary response to fires includes landowners; local/district municipalities. The secondary response includes district municipalities as well as Mutual Aid agreements in which municipalities must assist one another. There is also the option to deploy a specialised response, with aerial support. He said this can occur at the primary or secondary response phase.
He said Western Cape Disaster Management provides 20 aircraft (for rapid attack): eight spotter aircraft that look at the direction of the fire and report this to the other aircrafts; four fixed wing Bombers; eight Bell 205 (Huey) helicopters; one Black Hawk Lift helicopter. The Cape Winelands Disrict Municipality provides three helicopters. The City of Cape Town provides two helicopters. The Overberg District Municipality provides one helicopter. The South African National Defence Force provides two Oryx Medium Lift helicopters, as requested. There is usually a delay when requesting aircraft from the SANDF as there needs to be certain approvals that are needed.
Aircraft are placed near high risk areas and this can change wildfire season. He directed people to the Department’s website further information.
Mr A van der Westhuizen (DA) asked how many of the fire were a result of human action versus naturally occurring fires. To what extent can we control the causes of the fires? How is the decision to deploy resources made? He said he believes that if there was an overreaction to the fires when they were small, a lot of damage could have been avoided. He wanted to know what the analysis of the upcoming fire season was.
Ms M Maseko (DA) wanted to know how municipalities were reacting to the loss of life due to the lack of fire-breaks at the urban edge of informal settlements. She asked how municipalities are ensuring open spaces are secured to prevent land invasions? She also wanted to know to what extent landowners are held responsible for not utilising their parcels of land.
Mr M Xego (EFF) wanted to know what prevention measures were in place to prevent fatalities and loss of property, especially in informal settlements. He wanted to know what the plan is, going forward.
Mr Deiner said the vast majority of fires are caused by humans. He also said that when a fire is started maliciously it is very difficult for Fire Services, as this is a law enforcement issue. He made an example of the Betty’s Bay Fire, where a suspect was identified and detained.
With regards to awareness programmes, he said the shortcoming was that everyone was doing their awareness programme. To remedy this, a Wildfire Working Group was established. The group consists of everyone involved in Integrated Fire Management. They meet once a month outside the fire season, and once a week during the season.
With regards to reacting to fires while they are still small, he said that in the past municipalities were reluctant to call for aerial support due to the cost involved (for example the Huey helicopter costs R35 000 per hour). He said they have reached out to municipalities and informed them that if a municipality reports a fire within minutes, at a high risk area, the department will carry that cost. This means that a lot of resources are thrown at the fire at an early stage. He said that even though fires start small, they can spread extremely fast, depending on the conditions.
He said land invasions are happening quite rapidly, so getting resources to do fire breaks becomes difficult.
He said the most prevalent cause of death in a fire is smoke inhalation, so a smoke detector programme was started. He also said Fire Services has limited resources and has to undertake a daily analysis on where resources should flow. He made the example of the fire in the United States where 270-plus aircraft were deployed to a fire, whereas our entire aircraft complement was 24.
Ms Maseko wanted to know to what extent are municipalities sensitised to the issue of illegal electric connections, and how they contribute to fires. What are they doing to nip this in the bud?
The Chairperson asked how the reduced financial resources available to municipalities impact on their capabilities to deal, as first responders, with fire disasters that will occur?
Ms Maseko asked to what extent the Department of Local Government and Human Settlements engage to ensure that there is adequate water in the informal settlements, in order to fight fire?
Mr van der Westhuizen asked how the department handles the unique circumstances at informal settlements. For example, people remove their household contents and blocking access for firefighters.
Mr Deiner said the illegal electricity connections are a serious cause for concern. He said the training of firefighters is very behind. He said if this situation is not handled, there will be a problem in a couple of years’ time. He also said there is a problem of lack of training sites as well as the cost training. He also said Disaster Management has good intergovernmental relations with other departments. For example, the smoke detector programme was a collaboration with the department of Human Settlements.
He said that since 2015, the province has provided 50 fire trucks to municipalities. These are fitted with Compressed Air Foam Systems. This foam is mixed with water and gives you a more effective response so that you do not have to use a lot of water. He pointed out that the problem with informal settlements is their rapid expansion.
Mr Graham Paulse, Head of Department: Western Cape Department of Local Government, said there is a struggle with land invasions and illegal connections. The disconnections are challenged by the communities and law enforcement needs to be brought in. He made an example of the land invasion in Du Noon has extended to under the pylons, and this poses a risk should a fire occur. He said budget cuts were resulting in the department not being to support municipalities as much as they could.
Presentation on Special Investigations Unit investigations into local government
Ms Eda Barnard, Chief Director: Municipal Performance Monitoring and Support, Western Cape Department of Local Government said an investigation starts after receiving an allegation of fraud, corruption, and maladministration from members of the community, or service providers.
She said some of the allegations are frivolous and others have merit. Both require a high-level assessment by a specialist investigator to make a determination on the next steps.
Some of the allegations are made by whistle-blowers, both formally and informally. The complaints come through the official hotline of the Western Cape Government; hotlines in the district municipalities/municipalities; directly from Heads of Department/Minister/Premier.
She said there is a much stronger focus on potential corrupt activities across the board. There is a growing culture of zero tolerance towards corruption. There is a drastic increase in allegations of fraud over the last two years.
She explained the legislative mandate that authorises the Minister of local government as well as the municipality to take action when wrongdoing is suspected. The Municipal Systems Act, Public Finances Management Act, Municipal Finances Management Act all provide clear direction on which steps to take when one encounters suspicious activity. She said section 152 of the Constitution states that the object of local government is to provide a democratic and accountable government for local communities.
She said the Auditor-General was of the view that municipal leadership, including Council did not provide adequate oversight.
If there is merit to the allegation, the process that is envisaged in Section 5 of the Western Cape Act is initiated, and all correspondence and allegations are forwarded to the municipalities, affording them the opportunity to respond to the allegations. The municipality then responds to the allegations. A team of independent investigators then looks at the information from the whistle-blower as well as the information from the municipality to determine the next steps.
If there is merit to the allegations, a section 106 investigation is initiated which is now formalised in terms of the Municipal Systems Act. The MEC for local government designates an investigator to look at the allegations made; the investigator may direct any person to produce any documents.
Lastly, a department receives back the findings of the section 106 report. She said that the findings and recommendations are provided to Municipal Council, and Council needs deal with the findings in terms of code of conduct for councillors as well as regulations for senior managers. If there is potential criminal activity, that is referred to the National Prosecuting Authority for further investigation.
With regards to investigations, she said the Bitou Municipality investigation was concluded in 2019. A report was tabled to the Council and the municipality appointed a law firm to develop a process plan to respond to the report, attending to the findings and recommendations. A copy of the section 106 report was given to the Hawks.
At George Municipality, a section 106 investigation was initiated and concluded. Due to the magnitude of the allegations the report was issued in three phases. Parts A, B, C were provided to the municipality in early 2020. Council recently resolved to deal with the recommendations in the report. Copies of the report were also given to the Hawks. She said a number of people appeared in court on 9 October 2020, after the Hawks completed their investigations.
Some of the investigations still under way include: Central Karoo District Municipality, for tender irregularities and irregular payments; George Municipality, for irregular appointments; Matzikama Municipality, for irregular appointments and theft.
She said that over time, the department of Local Government has fostered a working relationship with law enforcement agencies. If criminal offences are identified in the report, a copy is provided to the National Prosecuting Authority.
She said there have been a focus on anti-corruption with multiple initiatives to drive the message home. Training is provided official, with officials from the Department of Local Government, Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs attending training on the amendment of the Local Government Anti-Corruption Strategy.
She said training was also provided to councillors, with a focus on the code of conduct and ethics; training of the Municipal Public Accounts Committee (MPAC); as well as special councillor training.
There was also legal guidance and advice to municipal leaders, focusing on Disciplinary matters; Regulations for Senior Management; Municipal Regulation on Financial Misconduct procedures and criminal proceedings.
She also said there were special projects designed to address findings by the Auditor-General, with a focus Human Resource Policies; Mentorship programme; as well as ICT audit action plans.
Mr Xego wanted to know what the correct procedure is for those employees who want to expose fraud and corruption, but are concerned about victimisation. He said Kanaland Municipality has been frequented by the Hawks and the Special Investigations Unit, but they do not appear in the presentation. What is the current situation in that municipality? He wanted to know the length of time required for a municipality to be under administration, before getting the desired results?
Ms Maseko wanted clarity on what is meant by a high-level assessment and who is responsible for this? She wanted to know what the financial implication for the municipalities is. Is there a system that indicates timeframes linked to issues raised? How is the whistle-blower protected from victimisation?
Mr van der Westhuizen wanted to know if there are any minimum bars to cross before an investigation is triggered? What is the ratio of frivolous allegations? Who, in the municipality, should provide the information requested by the investigation team? Why are the requests made to the Speaker? He wanted to know what is deemed a reasonable time for documents to be handed over? He said it was his understanding that one entity may not use another entity’s investigative report, but Ms Barnard has said they provide reports to the Hawks. He wanted clarity on this.
Mr D Smith (ANC) wanted to know what role internal investigations play in the province’s responsibility. He conceded his question was not perfectly-worded and that he would be willing to elaborate if the need arises.
Alderlady Georlene Wolmarans (Garden Route District Municipality) wanted to know how the whistle-blower’s anonymity is protected. She said there was a situation in Knysna where whistle-blower’s identity was revealed and they were victimised.
Ms Barnard said the Protected Disclosures Act protects whistle-blowers. There are processes in place for the handling of the whistle-blower’s identifying information. She said if a whistle-blower is victimised then they can asset their rights under the Labour Relations Act.
She said Kanaland Municipality is under section 13(a)(5) intervention, which means they have an economic recovery plan. A decision was made by Cabinet, that the intervention will last until after the election. She said there was relative stability in the municipality. She said the department is aware of the activity by other agencies.
She explained that a high-level assessment means the information is assessed by a professional team that consists of professional investigators and admitted attorneys.
She said the current data she has does not specify the ratio of frivolous complaints, but she assured the committee that if an allegation has merit then it will be followed though.
She said the Systems Act and the Western Cape Act guide the department because it specifies that the requests must be made to the Speaker. She said the reasonable timeframe for receiving requested documents will depend on the information the department has at hand and how much more information is required. There is no specific timeframe.
Mr Paulse said there was a Hawks investigation in Kanaland Municipality in terms of prior senior municipal officials. The most recent visit by the Hawks is due to a payment by a senior official. The issue is still being assessed to determine if a section 106 investigation should be initiated.
He said the Minister can rely on internal investigation and decide if further action is required.
The Chairperson wanted to know what happens when municipalities do not co-operate with section 106 investigations? Has the department experience non-compliance? What was done to address it? How far along is the investigation into Bitou Municipality? He said it has been going on for a while now. What is the level of co-operation between the department and the Hawks in terms of dealing with certain investigations? Once a municipality is placed under administration, how long does the province investigate before handing the municipality back to local leadership?
Ms Barnard said the report on the Central Karoo is expected by the end of the week.
Adv Gary Birch, Director: Specialised Support, Western Cape Government, said Matzikama is currently not co-operating by failing to provide documentation. He said investigators have the option of opening a criminal case. There is also the option of applying for an interdict via the courts, to compel co-operation. If there is continued non-compliance, then the provincial executive can step in as envisaged under section 139 of Constitution. He said certain interventions end when elections come around.
The Chairperson wanted to know if the department follows up with non-compliant municipalities or is there a wait-and-see approach?
Adv Birch said there is regular correspondence by the Minister, to reports that are issued, but reasonable time is allowed for response. He said investigators do not conduct a criminal investigation, this is done by the SAPS and the Hawks.
Mr Paulse said the department liaises with the provincial head of the Hawks with regards to the Matzikama Municipality investigation and the Hawks would investigate the financial crime, whereas we will deal with the balance of the issues.
Members expressed concern over the fire season and call on members of the public to take extra care during the upcoming fire season.
They expressed appreciation for the arrangement between the province and municipalities that results in the earlier deployment of aerial resources, when fighting fire. Municipalities are encouraged to make more use of the arrangement.
Members said particular attention needs to be paid to all fires people do not underestimate fires while they are small.
The province must look to assist in various ways when it come to fighting fires, especially in informal settlement. The distribution of smoke detectors needs to be investigated.
Municipalities must be empowered to deal illegal electricity connections.
Fire hydrants and/or bulk water points need to be included where an informal settlement is being upgraded, for fire-fighting purposes.
Members request a report on informal structures with and without legal electricity connections.
They also requested a quarterly report on all municipalities that are under investigation and when these investigations started, so this can be monitored.
Members expressed appreciation and acknowledgement of the Special Investigations Unit.
They also requested that the capacity of the SIU be compared to other units in other provinces.
Members requested an oversight to the Kanaland Municipality in order to gain some insights into how relative stability was established.
Further Committee business
The following documents were considered and adopted:
- Committee minutes dated 15 September 2020
- Quarterly Report (July – September 2020)
- Committee Tracking Document
The Chairperson thanked everyone and the meeting was adjourned.
Download as PDF
You can download this page as a PDF using your browser's print functionality. Click on the "Print" button below and select the "PDF" option under destinations/printers.
See detailed instructions for your browser here.