James Mokgehle, an elderly man who lives in Thakgalang, was riding his bicycle down a rain-drenched path when we ran into him last week. Attached to the back of his bike was a milk crate for transporting his things, along with a green vuvuzela that resembled an exhaust pipe.
Mokgehle’s village lies 25 minutes outside Polokwane in the same zone as Seshego, where ANC Youth League President Julius Malema grew up. However, unlike Seshego, Thakgalang has no tarred roads. In fact, the dirt paths that wind their way through the village can barely be called roads.
Mokgehle stopped to talk, telling us that unemployment was rife in Thakgalang, that there was limited water, no electricity and no reconstruction and development programme houses.
He said in the past 15 years there had been no real service delivery in the village and that crime was rampant because of the high levels of unemployment.
Pointing to a communal tap, he told us that people stole the tap’s mechanism to sell to scrap yards, even though so many depended on it for their limited water supplies.
We said our goodbyes and headed just up the road, where we found a mobile clinic offering medical services out of the local crèche. Outside, 20 toddlers stood around in the mud from the fresh rain. One was crying, obviously eager to get back inside.
We approached a nurse who was consulting a patient who was complaining that they had to use the crèche as a makeshift clinic. “This is not appropriate for medical services,” the patient said.
Soon the nurse’s superior arrived and chased us away, informing us that, if we wanted to report on their work, we would have to approach the national health department for permission.
The superior had good reason to be sensitive about media attention. The province has been making headlines since the treasury placed five of its provincial departments under administration in early December last year, resulting in accusations from the ANC in Limpopo that the move was political.
The latest claims are that the province is bankrupt. But what exactly does a bankrupt province under the administration of the national government with political salvos flying in every direction look like? The Mail & Guardian spent a week in an attempt to find out.
On the streets of Thakgalang the M&G spoke to the Democratic Alliance’s Polokwane councillor Ngako Setjie, who told us that the biggest problem is water.
Setjie claimed that water was delivered to residents in big tanks, which were sent out to particular areas according to their political patronage.
“Corruption in Limpopo is very high. If you are not politically connected, you will stay poor,” Setjie said. “We know the ANC liberated South Africa, but that’s history. It should remain in the books. What we need is service delivery.
“When it is election time, we go door to door doing voter education, then when the election comes, they all vote ANC and then a week later, they come to the DA and complain and say ‘We voted for these people and they don’t deliver’. People are angry, but they still vote for the ANC.”
Later that day we found ourselves in the other camp. We were having drinks at the upmarket Rhapsodys restaurant in the more affluent Polokwane suburb of Bendor Park, known locally as Tender Park for its high concentration of residents who made their fortune through government tenders.
Driving through Bendor Park you would be forgiven for mistaking it for part of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. There are luxurious houses with electric fencing, gated communities and newly built shopping centres.
We were meeting a senior member of the Limpopo provincial government to talk about the departments — roads and transport, public works, treasury, health and education — that are now under administration.
“This thing was just politics,” he said. “There is a national conference coming up in the ANC and the ANC Youth League has said that it wants changes in the ANC leadership and it is dissatisfied with the president.
“Those comrades who want to maintain the status quo see Limpopo as a political base for Julius [Malema] and the ANC Youth League and so they feel they need to attack Limpopo. It’s a pre-emptive strike, if you don’t moer them, they will moer you.
“We don’t want to deny that there are challenges, but it’s the same with every institution in South Africa, including the presidency, which got an unqualified audit with financial findings. Limpopo is not the worst province when it comes to supply-chain management. I think Kwazulu-Natal is number one in terms of non-compliance in supply-chain management. Even with the budget-deficit issue, I think we are the fourth worst amongst the provinces.”
Besides, our source told us, the awarding of tenders has been going on since 1994.
“This hype about Limpopo’s tenderpreneurs is mostly based around Julius. If Julius was not from this province, the spotlight would not be on the province. The debate that should be happening in the ANC is whether people holding political positions in government should be in business, including the president.”
The problem is …
“It’s really sad that this has resorted to a conversation about who is worse in terms of corruption and maladministration,” a Polokwane-based consultant intimately familiar with the province’s economics and service delivery efforts told us one afternoon.
“Corruption is so endemic that systems have collapsed.”
He pointed to cadre deployment and the fact that government departments and institutions had people running them that didn’t have the skills to meet their mandate.
Take water, the key service delivery issue in Limpopo.
He said that there were pipes to a lot of villages in Limpopo, but there was no water in these pipes because of the lack of proper management of the water system. Nandoni Dam is case in point. It was built at a cost of R440-million to service nearby communities but, according to the DA, because of poor workmanship and the use of substandard pipes, the nearby communities in the Vhembe and Mopani districts still do not have access to water.
The consultant argued that the provincial government had shown very weak infrastructure maintenance, and with the provincial government’s wage bill being high and rising significantly each year, it had put a squeeze on the money available for service delivery.
He described the administration problems as a “ticking time bomb” and wondered aloud whether the treasury had enough capacity to plug the holes, especially with other national problems to deal with and other underperforming provinces.
Later that day, Limpopo treasurer David Masondo admitted that there were huge challenges in the province, especially because so many of its residents lived in a rural setting.
“The main problem is our economic structure. It’s mostly mining and mining can’t absorb everyone, so a lot of our people are unemployed and a lot of them are young,” said Masondo.
“A lot of our people depend on social grants and the state for employment. I think 60% of our budget goes to government wages, like those for teachers, nurses or police officers.”
Masondo said the main challenge was to diversify economic activity in the province and that would “require some bold decisions to be taken at a national level around industrial strategy such as the beneficiation of platinum being mined in the province”.
Meanwhile, our consultant had just argued that platinum mining could be massively up-scaled to create jobs, but infrastructure like water and roads was holding it back.
The next day, we journeyed to visit rural villages outside Menken, about 30 minutes from Polokwane.
When we turned off the tar the quality of the roads rapidly deteriorated, with some almost impossible to travel on. When we reached the Magaqa village mid-week, we could see that the main road was in the middle of being upgraded, but there was no sign of work being done that day.
We stopped to talk to Selfina Letsoalo (42), who received her RDP house in 2003 after being on a list for three years. Letsoalo lives in her new house with her husband and four children, aged 18, 17, nine and two. Both are both unemployed and live off social grants.
Mealies were growing in the back and chickens ran around the yard. She was sitting on a couch inside feeding her two-year-old son as she told us she was angry because her RDP house was never completed.
As we looked around the village, we could see RDP houses with metal roofing held down with large stones and wire. Windows were boarded up with metal sheets and doors hung at bizarre angles.
Letsoalo said her house did not have subdivisions for rooms when she got it; there were no windows; the roof leaks when it rains; and when there are strong winds, it lifts up and down as if it is going to fly away.
“I complained to the councillor,” she said. “I was told that the contractors would come back and finish the job, but to this day we have never heard anything about this.”
Apparently this is not an uncommon scenario in Limpopo.
A brief look at the treasury’s database of blacklisted suppliers shows that Limpopo has a bad record of poor service delivery performance, with 62% of the 125 nationally blacklisted companies being contracted by the Limpopo provincial government and 34% of them being companies that did work for Limpopo’s department of local government and housing.
Letsoalo’s village has taps for water but, she said, the water dries up continually. Recently the supply returned after a number of dry weeks. The villagers have electricity too, but there is a problem with her connection and she has been trying to get Eskom to come and fix it for ages. She said the unemployment in the area resulted in a high crime rate, with muggings at night because of the lack of street lights.
It’s much the same in the neighbouring village of Ramogale.
Nkele Sebogodi, who is 25 years old, unemployed and living off social grants and the money she gets from her grandmother, received her RDP house in November last year. Sebogodi was on the list for just a year.
She was busy hanging her washing on the wire fence surrounding her house when we arrived, as her three-year-old son played in the yard. She also lives with her eight-year-old son, and a 16-year-old brother.
Sebogodi said she was happy with the construction of her new home and had no complaints, but said there were lots of people in the village still waiting for their RDP houses.
The lack of water came up again, but as we stood chatting to her, a truck carrying large containers filled with water drove past. We were told the water would be used to build RDP houses.
Just down the road, we visited a local school, but it was difficult to get teachers to talk to us.
The failure of the provincial education department to order textbooks on time, which made national news recently, has added to the anxiety. Teachers here are fearful they may be victimised by the provincial government if they speak to the media.
Over the next few days, we were able to get a few reluctant teachers to agree to speak to us. But none would go on the record.
The majority painted a picture of making do with what they had. The classrooms seemed overcrowded, with some teachers reporting as many as 80 learners in a class.
Some complained about the lack of storerooms at schools where equipment could be kept so that it was not stolen or vandalised. There were also complaints about the school feeding scheme, with some alleging that there are a few suppliers who are connected to the ANC Youth League in Limpopo.
With unemployment rife, the teachers also said that raising money from parents or the community was difficult and that often the youth league would step in, donating uniforms to needy children.
Toilets were major issue: one school had eight toilets for 620 pupils and another had two proper functioning toilets for 300. Others complained that they had a major problem with water drying up, leaving the school parched for months.
Bringing out the big guns
As we spent the next few days driving through Limpopo, we heard news of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s arrival in Polokwane.
The minister arrived on Thursday last week, flanked by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, along with a handful of other Cabinet ministers, to give a press briefing on the imposed administration of the province. They brought with them a bus-load of embedded journalists from Gauteng, who were all fed Nandos on their day trip.
Many analysts saw this very public statement to reaffirm the treasury’s intervention as a rebuff to comments made by ANC treasurer Matthews Phosa earlier in the week in which he claimed that the national government had usurped powers from Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale.
Gordhan told reporters that day in Polokwane that Limpopo faced a potential shortfall of R2-billion at the end of the current financial year.
The treasury’s director general, Lungisa Fuzile, was reported to have responded to the province’s call for more money by stating that, unless “urgent action” was taken, the local treasury was likely to preside over a “serious failure of public systems and process for service delivery”.
A press release put out by the treasury last week highlighted the issues: expenditure reporting in the province was not credible, supply-chain management did not meet legal requirements and illegal payments to service providers had emerged.
As Limpopo continued to dominate the news agenda for the next few days, I was reminded of a story I was told of an old man from the province who joked that Polokwane needed to have its name changed to Pothole-Kwane.
A frivolous joke, but one that reaffirms that, for the residents of Limpopo, it’s all about service delivery.