Dispute over PMB’s broken clock

The vintage clock in Pietermaritzburg has stopped working. | SUPPLIED

The vintage clock in Pietermaritzburg has stopped working. | SUPPLIED

Published Feb 5, 2024


Durban — One of Pietermaritzburg’s iconic symbols and attractions is dysfunctional due to a stand-off between the Msunduzi Municipality and a service provider.

The clock, as old as the city itself, has not been working for months and Mark Webber, the horologist who has been doing mechanical work on it over the years, insists that he will not work on it unless he is paid.

The clock, along with City Hall, has been one of the main attractions with tourists both local and international because of its features.

“The last contract expired on 15 December 2023 and although I have signed a new one-year contract the municipality has not signed and forwarded a copy of the contract back to me. Thus the clock is not working,” said Webber.

He said he had put in many extra hours of work and materials at no cost to the municipality over the years because of his passion for the clock.

“When I have a contract I expect to be paid and paid on time. I am passionate about the clock and get great satisfaction from seeing and getting it running to time, but as this is my profession, clock-making, I do need to be paid my wages,” he said.

Webber first worked on the clock when he did a major four-month overhaul of it in 2002. The only other times the clock has stopped in the past 22 years have been when he was unable to gain access to the tower and when the municipality had breached the terms of payment in the contract. Webber said he was mindful of how very few people understood how large and complex the clock is.

“I’ve maintained and wound the clock since then except for a period of about 12 months that the clock did not work a few years ago due to the municipality not renewing the contract.

“I have stopped all winding and servicing so as to force payment in respect of the contract. No pay, no work,” said Webber, who studied watch and clock-making through the British Horological Institute.

University of KwaZulu-Natal historian Professor Donal McCracken noted that the maintenance of historic monuments was a challenge that was not limited to South Africa but was experienced worldwide. McCracken said this should not be allowed as history and heritage was part of human existence.

He added that in the case of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall this was more important as it was the largest red-brick building in the southern hemisphere.

“The clock may no longer have utilitarian value because more people have watches and do not rely on it, but it is part of the feature of the city and I would support its maintenance along with that of the building,” said McCracken.

Msunduzi city manager Lulamile Mapholoba conceded that the fault had been on the part of City Hall, but dismissed suggestions that there had been a contractual dispute.

“Somebody dropped the ball on the part of our officials in the sense that when the contract was approaching the end, and knowing that the clock is serviced by one person, efforts should have been under way to get the new contract signed, but they did not do so on time,” said Mapholoba.

He said he had only become aware that the clock wasn’t functioning recently and committed to have the new contract signed swiftly so that the people of Pietermaritzburg and visitors could enjoy the sound of the clock.

He said they would be considering a longer-term contract with Webber because of his scarce skill and the municipality wanted to avoid any hiccups in the clock’s functioning.

Mapholoba said the clock was valuable and they would do everything to ensure that it was properly maintained, along with the City Hall.

Sunday Tribune