File image (for illustration purposes only) Municipal officials, in collaboration with councillors, allegedly enrich themselves by stealing the mayoral chains, some of which are worth up to R1 million. PICTURE: MARIE STRACHAN

Johannesburg - A new phenomenon of corruption has been uncovered in some local municipalities in South Africa, where municipal officials, in collaboration with councillors, allegedly enrich themselves by stealing the mayoral chains, some of which are worth up to R1 million.

Mayoral chains are ornamental chains worn by mayors around their necks at official events as a sign of dignity.

Most mayors since the first democratic local government elections in 2000 are no longer donning their chains of honour.

Historically, it became customary to attach the municipality’s coat of arms to the chain. Then the names of previous mayors were added and eventually it became customary to provide the mayoress and deputy mayor with chains.

The wearing of chains first became commonplace in the Cape Province and in Natal and from there spread throughout the country. Cape Town and Port Elizabeth acquired chains of office in 1892, manufactured from 18-carat South African gold. Durban got theirs in 1899 and Joburg in 1910.

Today all big municipalities have a chain of office for their mayors.

In 2011, outgoing mayor Obed Mlaba, who was at the helm of eThekwini for 15 years, officially handed over the R2.3 million mayoral chain to James Nxumalo, who is one of the few mayors in the country who still wear it in public.

The Sunday Independent investigated what had happened to the mayoral chains since most mayors were no longer wearing them.

The responses ranged from claims that the chains of honour had been placed in strongrooms or bank vaults, as prescribed by the municipalities’ by-laws, to some chains just having disappeared without trace, or become shorter.

* In the Msunduzi Municipality, about seven of the mayoral chain’s 34 links mysteriously disappeared a few years ago.

The 18-carat gold chain, which was previously appraised by an established city jeweller to be worth close to R800 000, had become much shorter than it was when previous mayors were wearing it.

The chain, similar to most, was made in such a way that links could be added or removed.

Hence it became shorter as the links were being stolen.

Each link in the chain was in the form of a small medallion that had the name of a former mayor engraved on it.

* The stone in the mayoral chain of the diamond city of Kimberley is apparently now fake.

The then municipal manager had apparently been informed of the mysterious disappearance of the real diamond.

It was believed the mayoral chain was last seen with the diamond at the 2006 inauguration of the then-executive mayor, Patrick Lenyibi.

“I know that the diamond, the real one, was on the chain when I wore it. I know what the diamond looks like,” Lenyibi said.

“I wore the chain many times and the real diamond was there.”

According to the municipality, the diamonds were removed from the mayor’s and the mayoress’s chains because they were loose and had been placed in a safe for safekeeping.

It is believed the diamonds were found to be fake when the chains were taken to a local jeweller to have the stones valued.

* In 2011, the brother of the Molemole local municipality mayor in Limpopo was arrested and charged with the theft of her mayoral chain. It was alleged the then-mayor, Monica Mohale, was aware of the disappearance of the R100 000 chain from October the previous year. Councillors noticed she had not been wearing it at several official functions. Mohale opened a case of theft and police arrested her younger brother, Martin.

* In July 2011, it was announced that the mayoral chain of Bob Moola, former mayor of the Mogalakwena local municipality, was also stolen. The chain apparently went missing in 2007 without anybody knowing about it until it was needed for the inauguration of the new mayor, Esther Mothibi, in June 2011.

* City of Tshwane mayoral spokesman Blessing Manale said the previous mayoral chains of the various municipalities that have since been incorporated into the city were kept in safe custody at various heritage deposits, museums and as public displays at official buildings.

However, he said the City of Tshwane had lost a valuable part of its historic collection in the destruction of the old Munitoria building.

* The Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality said its mayoral chains and related regalia were collected from all the erstwhile local councils and have been in safekeeping at the Absa bank.

“We can confirm that we still have the mayoral chains and, as assets are held in trust on behalf of the people, they are kept in a place of safety until a decision is taken about them,” said mayoral spokesman, Nkosana Zali.

* Spokeswoman for the City of Cape Town, Pierrinne Leukes, responded: “The mayoral chain is safely stored in the City of Cape Town Civic Centre.”

* eThekwini head of communications, Tozi Mthethwa, said: “The municipality can assure citizens of the safety of our mayoral chain. However, we cannot divulge any more information on the matter for safety reasons.”

Most of the other municipalities contacted did not respond to inquiries, despite earlier promises that they would.

The Sunday Independent