DAWN on Tuesday 21 July on the old Hesketh motor racing circuit south of Pietermaritzburg. Down below in the river valley was an intense fire that looked like the very definition of Hades. Above it was a massive pillar of dense black smoke that hit the winter atmospheric inversion and spread a neat canopy of pollution across the city. The New England Road landfill was on fire – again.

For a week it enveloped Pietermaritzburg and environs in toxic fumes. On the Friday the smog was so dense it caused collisions on the nearby Durban to Johannesburg national road, one of Africa’s busiest routes, and basically shut down the city, especially its schools. Amid this public health and municipal governance disaster the local authority made an extraordinary, Alice-in-Wonderland statement that could be interpreted thus: there was a bit of winter mist that would soon lift while the dump fire was outside its competence. Never was a truer word uttered; but more of that later.

The outfit tasked with rescuing the landfill from its disastrous long-term mismanagement and potentially lethal collapse is called Surg Sut and headed by a man called Maximillian Lekgatle who has connections with the neighbouring suburb of Sobantu. Questions have been raised about Surg Sut’s track record, company structure and the appointment process last February. These are all the sorts of issues that tend to lead to disturbing answers whenever government contracts are signed in South Africa. Lekgatle blames the dump fire on saboteurs. He, too, may be correct – after a fashion.

Winter fires are something of a mystery, although in the veld they are ecologically beneficial. Perhaps a carelessly discarded cigarette or the heat of the midday sun on a glass bottle are involved, but a suspicious number of fires ignite at night. And this landfill fire was deep-seated, ferocious, and probably still burns unseen. As usual, attempts have been made to implicate the 800 waste pickers and recyclers who work the site, but why would they damage their own livelihoods in such a dramatic way? And could they start such a massive conflagration? Previous fires have been traced to the illegal dumping of combustible chemicals, which seems more plausible. Sabotage is a standard South African excuse, like the third force, for almost anything. It might have unintended validity, though: not as a means to discredit the municipality or the strangely named Surg Sut, but in the economic sense. A business could be paying bribes to any number of individuals to cut corners, save money and dump illegally.

So, back to Msunduzi Municipality. Its nonchalant attitude to the landfill’s toxic offerings is perfectly natural. The money paid by way of rates and service charges by diminishing numbers of the city’s residents and businesspeople is primarily swallowed by inept time-servers with political connections in the form of salaries and backhanders. The administration of services, especially something as unglamorous as a rubbish dump, is a secondary matter. The landfill serves as a chilling metaphor for the current state of the city; and the nation.

Observers and commentators in the wake of Beirut port’s explosion have described Lebanon as terminally corrupt. So, too, is South Africa and by logical extension municipalities like Msunduzi. The ANC long ago lost any pretensions as a political party believing it could survive on a diet of liberation movement rhetoric and nostalgia, and solemn, weighty pronouncements on national holidays and during Covid-19 briefings. At all levels the ANC is a criminal racket thriving on convoluted patronage linkages. It’s a regime of looting and consumption by a political class enabled by the hollowing out and capture of institutions designed to defend the Constitution and civic morality. Its collaborators are bankers, auditors, motor vehicle salespersons and estate agents who know exactly what is going on and profit from it. Corruption usually involves more than one party and politicians are not the only criminals.

The Lebanon parallel is too close for comfort. South Africa’s institutions are literally falling apart at all levels, but some of the most egregious examples are to be found among state-owned enterprises – and municipalities. Every year for decades the auditor-general has deplored the low level of legal compliance of local authorities (almost all of the compliant are in the Western Cape) but the situation gets worse and there are no repercussions. Msunduzi (greater Pietermaritzburg) has twice been placed under administration, but there is not a single facet of its operation that functions optimally – except payment of salaries (for the time being).

The landfill site, unlike some other municipal services, offers a number of opportunities. Residents and businesspeople pay the municipality to cart away their waste, which has economic value and is a resource to be exploited. With application and initiative it can be turned into fuel and compost and recycled in many ways. That, of course, requires long-term planning of the sort provided by professional management assisted by specialists. It’s not how the system is designed to work, however. The landfill site is viewed not as a public health responsibility with the potential to generate income for municipal benefit. It’s seen as a short-term opportunity to plunder for private consumption and possible political influence. There is little real room for public service and custodial politics.

The inferno says it all; and it will happen again in spite of emollient words. There are totally different versions of morality and ethics at work here and operation of parallel worlds. South Africa has all the institutions and laws necessary for the functioning of a modern state. But the reality is feudal. Political bosses, gangsters in effect, steal public money and distribute it to a chosen group – family, friends, followers and providers of services. Meanwhile, millions of people live on the literal breadline. The stolen funds are not coming back and the system is embedded and institutionalised.

On my now rare trips out in a car and when a SUV as large as a township house attaches itself to my rear bumper, I immediately wonder exactly how much of it actually belongs to the people of South Africa. Corruption has many consequences, cynicism and mistrust among them.