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  • How to Steal a City: the battle for Nelson Mandela Bay – an inside account by Crispian Olver
  • Doreen Atkinson (bio)
Crispian Olver (2017) How to Steal a City: the battle for Nelson Mandela Bay – an inside account. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball

Crispian Olver’s account of the travails of the municipal government in Nelson Mandela Bay Metro is a truly terrifying book.

The book narrates the intervention by two well-meaning change agents, Danny Jordaan and Crispian (Chippy) Olver, dispatched by the national government in 2015, to clean up the performance of the ANC-led metropolitan government in the city of Port Elizabeth. For almost a decade, the municipality had descended into a spiral of inchoate management, political factionalism, and looting by well-placed party-linked private interests.

Consider this paragraph:

Mapu [the Metro director of Housing] controlled a posse of questionable housing officials, dodgy contractors and trade union leaders. One of his henchmen in the department had faced murder and attempted murder charges – until he was himself gunned down in a tavern. Mapu and several of his housing officials were part of a mob that had stormed City Hall and broke the door and glass partition to the mayor’s office. Relying on former Umkhonto we Sizwe operatives with intelligence links, Mapu’s syndicate apparently tracked cellphones, bugged offices and intercepted communications, and could easily locate whomever they wanted … Besides Councillor Mkavu’s killing [he had been investigating corruption in the department], a prosecutor who had antagonised members of Mapu’s group had been murdered in 2009.


The list of municipal problems at Nelson Mandela Bay Metro was formidable: poor appointments of officials, with insufficient technical skills and overdeveloped political connections; creative ways of looting [End Page 75] the public coffers through the tendering system; and the subversion of the democratically elected municipal Council as a mechanism of accountability. Some of these machinations were extraordinarily devious; for example, companies would deliberately undercut prices in the market to secure a contract, and colluding metro officials subsequently allowed expenditure on the contract well in excess of the tender price (59).

Crispian Olver found himself in a veritable ‘perfect storm’ of institutional paralysis, decay and implosion. The fact that he and a few close allies managed to stem the tide of this tsunami of corruption testifies to extraordinary will-power, courage (the author had his own body-guard), tactical skills, and a strong belief in the fundamental principles of the ANC – his ‘political home’.

It is easy to interpret this dire situation at the level of individuals – as a contest between honest public servants and corrupted officials. For students of human agency and values, this is a story that seizes the imagination, rather Shakespearean in its proportions. During the fraught local government election in 2016, the author descended into his own moral abyss, frantically compromising his principles in order to raise funding for the floundering ANC campaign.

But methodological individualism takes us only a limited way in understanding the experience in Nelson Mandela Bay Metro. In fact, the forces of corruption created their own institutional architecture. There was a state within a state – front companies linked to prominent local politicians were awarded contracts, a network of staff in Budget and Treasury processed unauthorised payments, while powerful but unseen players orchestrated the operation from behind the scenes (60). In fact, two of the most important departments – Transport and Housing – each had their own clientelistic network feeding on public resources. The municipality had, in fact, almost become an institutional shell.

Furthermore, this organisational morass in Port Elizabeth was embedded in institutional dysfunctions that rippled much further afield. It included the blurry dividing line between government and party; the unsavoury relationship between provincial and metro officials, which subverted the Constitutional prescriptions regarding intergovernmental relations; an underfunded and poorly managed ANC which created incentives for unhealthy alliances with unscrupulous businesspeople; and the weakening of party-based mechanisms of accountability because the national level was, at that time, itself being subjected to state capture. [End Page 76]

Olver’s story, written with admirable clarity, throws up far-reaching questions about the nature of institutions in South Africa – and even in modern societies more broadly. Almost...


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pp. 75-81
Launched on MUSE
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