Saturday morning, 10am. It’s really cold in Johannesburg. I’m sitting at a heavy, wooden table. Neat piles of paperwork cover the one half. The source I am meeting has made coffee but it’s in a thick glass mug that doesn’t give off any heat. My hands stay firmly tucked in my jacket. We’re talking about water and sewerage infrastructure.
“R26-million for a cement box — that’s as big as a shallow pool,” the source says, talking about expensive upgrades to a plant in Sedibeng, south of Johannesburg.
An hour or so later, the source mentions a former official in the department of water and sanitation, who was shot dead. “I have been told he had incriminating evidence.”
It’s a throwaway comment and doesn’t interrupt the source’s train of thought. Useful deaths are not uncommon in water and sanitation, where contracts worth billions of rands are up for grabs.
A lot of money — but a large-scale failure in getting water to people. In the past two decades, South Africa has spent enough to give 95% of the population clean water. That’s a tap in the home, or within 200m of the home. But only 65% of people have clean water, according to the water department and the general household survey.
That means 20-million people who should have water, don’t.
The why of this isn’t anything new, or unique to South Africa. Large infrastructure projects have always attracted politicians looking to create patronage networks and business interests eager to profit off that.
The story since 1994 has, however, been one of scale. Because the apartheid state didn’t think people of colour needed clean water and sanitation, the new government had to build for a whole country.
To do that, it divided up responsibilities, using a nine-plus-one system. The national government, through the water and sanitation department, would own all the water. Its job was to dam it and pipe it to the nine provinces and municipalities. The municipalities would then buy the water, treat it and get it to people’s homes — and then clean the dirty water that came out of those homes. Clean water is a right, enshrined in the Constitution.
At each of these steps, work is contracted out to companies that claim to specialise in water and sanitation infrastructure. The dams and pipelines to move water get built over-budget and late. De Hoop Dam, critical for new mines and industry in the south of Limpopo, was half a decade late.
And the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Scheme is a decade late. As a result, Gauteng will use more water than it has. The cause of the problem allegedly lies with the water minister at the time, Nomvula Mokonyane. She had stepped in to pick her own contractors, according to reports, though she denied this.
Her stewardship over the department, starting in 2014, came with an acceleration of irregular expenditure. Details of this are contained in a late 2017 investigation by the auditor general. The report said irregular expenditure at water affairs was an almost healthy R13-million in 2009. In 2014, it grew to R2.5-billion, and to R4-billion by 2017. This is a quarter of the department’s budget, which cannot be accounted for. It is bankrupt and has only just survived talks of it being put under administration.
Without money, the department is struggling to help municipalities with their broken and poorly built infrastructure. The 20-million people don’t have water because their towns and cities failed to do their legally mandated job.
The current crisis started in the late 1990s. A former senior official in the water department says: “The fiscus poured money into municipalities to get water to people and didn’t follow through on where it went. As a country, we were naive.”
Hundreds of billions of rands flowed into South Africa’s 278 municipalities. More than 1 000 plants had to be built or upgraded. They cost between R1-million and R1-billion.
The recipe for profiting from this has been perfected and carried out all around the country. Money is made by cutting corners and charging exorbitant fees.
Corners are best cut in pipelines and cement. The key is that the project only needs to work when a senior politician, say a president, comes for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. You buy the cheapest pipelines and put them in a too-shallow trench. The pressure crushes them after a while. A fifth of South Africa’s water leaks out of broken pipes.
Because of the incredible pressure that thousands of tonnes of water puts on structures such as reservoirs, the cement and reinforced steel also need to be top quality. But these are expensive, so cheap steel is used, and then used sparingly. Cement is mixed with less cement and gravel — and more sand.
You can tell which structures have been built in this way by the cracks, and by how they crumble when you run your hand along them. When they fall apart, the national government has a crisis to respond to; people don’t have water and sometimes cholera breaks out. This means money has to be spent on something that has already had money spent on it. It also means there is an emergency, so normal procurement can be bypassed.
The classic case of this is in Giyani, in Limpopo. A drought in 2009 resulted in the discovery of problems with existing infrastructure. Cheap pipes from Nandoni Dam to Giyani had burst. They had to be replaced, along with other kinds of infrastructure. This would cost R5-billion. But little happened until 2014, when then-president Jacob Zuma was meant to open Giyani’s new water project for Freedom Day in October.
In September, LTE Consulting was given a R500-million contract to make sure water would flow at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. It, in turn, appointed Khato Civils and South Zambezi to do the work.
These three companies would keep popping up in the northern half of the country, getting contracts for emergency water infrastructure.
An investigation last year by the auditor general into this debacle found that the same companies were charging 11% of the total project value, compared with an industry norm of 5%. Cases of double accounting were also found, with the companies billing for 168 hours of work by an employee on one part of a project, and for the same employee doing the same hours, at the same time, on another part of the project. Costs claimed were also “excessive”, according to the investigation. Where registered professionals would be paid R1 446 an hour for work, the companies were claiming up to R3 500 an hour.
The auditor general’s report concluded: “We recommend that the [water] department conducts a full investigation to determine the actual fruitless and wasteful expenditure on these projects.”
Whole parts of Giyani still don’t have water. Khato Civils says the work is almost finished but it is waiting to be paid for it. That payment has been delayed because water affairs has a huge hole in its budget.
The people of Giyani are among the 20-million who should have water, even though the money put aside for it has been spent. This will only get worse as government budgets shrink.