/ 10 March 2017

Gauteng’s good news amid tragedy

Clean sweep: Gauteng finance MEC Barbara Creecy
Clean sweep: Gauteng finance MEC Barbara Creecy

Even as the deaths of 100 psychiatric patients continue to haunt Gauteng’s government, the province’s financial achievements over the past year have presented an opportunity for some redemption.

Fresh from delivering her budget speech this week, finance MEC Barbara Creecy spoke to the Mail & Guardian about the successes Gauteng’s government has achieved in its quest for clean governance.

These include cutting fruitless and wasteful expenditure by R386‑million by simply reducing the interest paid on overdue accounts. The provincial government also reduced spending on nonessential items — catering, branding and travel — and saved R414‑million in the process. All 14 provincial departments achieved unqualified audits for the 2015-2016 financial year.

Creecy, a champion of clean governance, believes the provincial government is on the right track. “It’s through teamwork with other departments that we’ve achieved things like the clean audits and the unqualified audits, both at provincial and at municipal level.

“It’s by saying to departments: ‘Okay, how do we help you fix this?’ ” she says.

But even after achieving its best audit outcome in 13 years, the Gauteng government is under pressure to regain public trust.

It will take a lot to come back from the Life Esidimeni tragedy — when more than 100 psychiatric patients died of cold, hunger, dehydration and a general lack of care after being moved from private care to ill-equipped nongovernmental organisations as a cost-cutting measure — especially after reports that the provincial health department believed its decision to be in line with Creecy’s 2016 budget speech, which called for the containment of costs.

There are other political pressures, too: the ANC losing control of the Johannesburg and Pretoria metros to the opposition in last year’s local government elections, the reported tensions between the Gauteng provincial ANC and its national leaders, and increasing pressure on the fiscus from the province’s ever-growing population.

For Premier David Makhura and his team, much will depend on the financial health of the province and its ability to deliver.

In his State of the Province address last month, Makhura said Gauteng’s executive council was not involved in making the financial decision to move the state’s psychiatric patients that would come at a fatal cost.

This week, Creecy affirmed Makhura’s stance, saying the executive council had been clear about not cutting essential costs linked to service delivery. “It has never been provincial government policy to save costs by cutting back on services to our citizens. In fact, every effort has been made to protect the budget of health, education and social development.”

Creecy has adopted a vocal stance on clean and transparent governance to maintain public confidence. Since the launch of Gauteng’s open tender programme last year, 38 tenders have been awarded through systems that involve public scrutiny. Thirty-four others are being evaluated with a probity audit that assesses whether all processes in awarding a tender have been properly followed.

Creecy says, although the system is still in its experimental phase, it has already demonstrated an ability to detect and root out irregularities.

“The reason they’re still in the process is because the probity audit might have said: ‘No, go back. You messed this phase up; go and do it again.’ It’s very important because that is what is ultimately going to reduce the irregular expenditure,” she says.

Creecy also has the task of stimulating the growth of an economy that contributes 35% of South Africa’s gross domestic product.

This year Gauteng’s budget allocation is R108‑billion, a R5‑billion increase from 2016. The budget is dominated by education, which receives an allocation of R40.8‑billion, and health, which gets R40.2‑billion.

It’s hoped that the manufacturing and services industries will create jobs that will stimulate predicted economic growth of 1.8% in the province for 2017. Creecy says the government wants to see inclusive growth that will address past injustices.

“We have to talk about the fact that, historically, because of monopolisation and the dominance of certain sectors in the economy — energy, mining and so on — you would find that the majority of the population has been excluded from ownership, control and participation in these sectors, except at a very basic level of unskilled labour,” she says.

Government procurement will drive this inclusive growth, she says. Over the past three years, Gauteng spent R42.8‑billion on procuring goods and services from historically disadvantaged individuals.

Creecy says the province is now looking at a “second wave of empowerment” to encourage these businesses to start manufacturing their own products to access new markets and become sustainable. At present, however, their sustainability is largely linked to the government’s ability to pay service providers on time.

Eleven provincial departments comply with the requirement to pay suppliers within 30 days. But big-budget departments such as education, health and infrastructure development continue to fall behind, often to the detriment of small business owners.

As the former education MEC, Creecy says she knows the strain that migration into Gauteng has placed on the health and education departments, which often fail to pay service providers as a result of budget overruns.

“When people arrive at a hospital, you can’t say to them: ‘Sorry, we’ve already seen 200 people at this hospital and we’ve only got budget for 200 — go away.’ They have a constitutional right to be served, whether you have budgeted for them or not,” she says. “Part of the challenge that lies ahead is trying to get the whole system to function more effectively.”

To maintain Gauteng’s good financial health, Creecy says she wants her role in the provincial treasury to be about more than cracking the whip on budgets.

“If you were to say to me what would I like to see as being my legacy in treasury … it’s not just being strict, it’s also about looking at how do we help departments to achieve the outcomes that we all agree are necessary.”