‘I lost my leg and I’m going blind but can’t retire’ – Municipal workers’ pension nightmare

Former employee of the Free State’s ailing Mafube Municipality, sickly Paseka Jonas Mahlanku, lives in Mafahlaneng township in the rural town of Tweeling.

The council is headquartered in Frankfort, and the 68-year-old Mahlanku worked as a tractor driver at the municipality for over 23 years.

During this period, his health problems have been piling up. His leg was amputated last month due to gangrene, leaving him wheelchair bound. He is also gradually losing his eye eyesight.

Despite all this, he is still awaiting his pension pay out, several years after retiring, because the council owes pension funds millions in unpaid contributions.

Mahlanku said municipal officials told him there was no pension money for him when he retired a few years ago. He had been anxiously anticipating retirement day, planning to use his pension to fix his home.

“It hurts so much because I worked all those years, I am in a painful situation. I wanted to fix this dilapidated house for my family.

“I am in physical pain as I am talking to you, I can’t go see a doctor because I have nothing. We’ve been waiting for an ambulance to take me to the hospital,” he told The Citizen.

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Mahlanku is just one of the more than 40 former employees left to their own devices in their old age.

His dire situation was worsened by the municipality’s failure to pay workers’ salaries last month. Mafube had started to pay the pensioners monthly wages because pension funds would not release any monies until their outstanding contributions were paid up.

His daughter Mafedile Mahlanku, aged 33, said she had to leave her job to look after her ill and aging parents.

She said her father’s pension could have been further used to build him a toilet inside the house for easy access.

“Our toilet is outside. It’s such a struggle for him .he is now on a wheelchair after losing his leg.

“The municipality is giving us empty promises, meanwhile my father, who was the sole breadwinner, is sick and is owed the pension he needs desperately.”

Calls to President Ramaphosa to intervene

The SA Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) said some of the pensioners died in grinding poverty while waiting for their monies, leaving their families with nothing to look after themselves.

The union’s Mafube chairperson Johnson Mbele called on President Cyril Ramaphosa and Free State Premier Mafora Ntombela to intervene.

“The law is clear that it is a crime if an employer takes more than seven days to transfer deducted employees’ funds. Furthermore, currently, workers haven’t received their May salaries.

“The municipality has to explain to us as to what happened. We call on the president, ministers Enoch Godongwana, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and Premier Mafora Ntombela to come and see the bad situation here. It’s a sad moment in Mafube, we need a rescue from Ramaphosa.”

Another pensioner, Annah Mamosa Mokoena, 66, said she first started working at Mafube in 1985. At the dawn of democracy in 1994, she was converted to permanent employment as a cleaner.

“This issue hurts me and gives me sleepless nights. I do not know what to do…my children want to further their education and I have nothing to help them.”

She said she also wanted to renovate her home for her family.

“It’s like we never worked at all. All I wanted was to build a house for my children so that they can have a better home when I leave this world.”

Court had ordered Mafube to pay R37m owed to pension fund

Employees at Mafube belong to two pension funds – the South African Local Authorities Pension Fund, known as Sala, and the Municipal Workers Retirement Fund (MWRF).

The councillors have their own fund, called the Municipal Councillors Pension Fund (MCPF).

Last year, the MWRF took Mafube to court to force it to cough up R37 million in unpaid pension contributions.

According to the fund, no payments had been made since July 2015.     

Judge Pitso Ephraim Molitsoane handed down a cost order against Mafube, instructing it to pay R37 795 476.32, including interest.

In its submissions, the municipality cited irregular promotions, asking for a postponement to allow the chief financial officer to re-calculate deductions “from as far back as six years ago.”

Molitsoane was scathing in his September 2021 judgement.

“The prejudice to the employees, the former employees and their families is too ghastly to contemplate. No explanation is forthcoming as to why this is so. Even if I could find that there were people irregularly appointed to certain positions and enjoyed benefits they did not deserve, that can hardly excuse the municipality as a participating employer in terms of the PFA to perform its statutory obligations of paying its contributions and those of its employees to the pension fund.”

Judge Pitso Ephraim Molitsoane

‘MEC pained by workers’ suffering’

A local business forum recently approached the courts seeking permission to run Mafube’s affairs on behalf of residents, arguing that the council failed to render basic services for over 16 years.

The court has since ordered Ntombela to urgently take over the administration and implement a financial recovery plan. In addition to pension fund debt, the municipality reportedly owes power utility Eskom and the SA Revenue Services (Sars), along with several other dysfunctional councils in the Free State.

The last time the council was placed under administration as per section 189 was in 2017.

It is led by the African National Congress (ANC), with Tlhoare Motsoeneng as the current mayor.

Free State cooperative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) spokesperson Sello Dithebe said a provincial team was already in Mafube.

He said Cogta MEC Mxolisi Dukwana was adamant that wherever there was evidence of crime by municipal officials, law enforcement should investigate.

“We are pained by what is happening to employees. The prospects are quite dire. They have worked so many years.

“We will have to treat each case on its merits and demerits to determine what needs to be done, because at the heart of it all is human dignity and rights of the workers affected. This pains the MEC greatly.”

Dithebe said his department held preparatory meetings with the Hawks and will soon brief Parliament’s cooperative governance select committee on what was being done on the non-payment of third parties such as pension funds.

Last month, the committee said it had decided to call in law enforcement agencies in the province to explain the delays in finalising investigations into corruption and maladministration at municipalities.

Some of the cases, said chairperson China Dodovu, dated back to 2011.

“The committee was informed that there are currently 20 cases that are being investigated by the Hawks, and it is of the view that an update is necessary to assess the progress and challenges if any.

“There are concerns about the political instability in some of these municipalities, such as Mohokare Local Municipality which has resulted in the delay in commencing the Section 106 investigations,” said Dodovu.

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