Past failures don’t bode well for Mokonyane tenure

News Analysis

Nomvula Mokonyane was not at the communications department for long enough to leave a lasting legacy. But her tenure at the water and sanitation department was long enough. Long enough for the department to be left virtually bankrupt, and for crises to have built up in water provision around the whole country.

Mokonyane arrived at the department with great promise. “Mama Action” was seen as someone who could help a department that had suffered through more than a decade of problems. Her time as Gauteng premier built the perception she solved issues others did not want to tackle.

She also bridged an awkward divide in how South Africa is run, with power split between national, provincial and local government. For water, this is a real problem.

National government owns all the water. It gets it to towns and cities, these give it to people, who have a constitutionally guaranteed right to water. Most of the times when things go wrong, it is because municipalities have not invested in infrastructure, so they do not have working plants to treat drinking water, or their pipes are so damaged the water leaks out before it gets to people’s homes.

When things go really wrong, it is a national problem.

Mokonyane came with the promise of making sure that this did not happen. It did. Under her nearly four years at the department, things got much worse.

Her time at 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.

This week, Rand Water — the utility which supplies drinking water to Gauteng — issued a statement saying that it could not pay stipends because it was waiting for payment from the water and sanitation department.

The department only just survived being taken under administration because its new minister, Gugile Nkwinti, asked for time to turn things around.

He is faced with systemic problems, from corruption to gross negligence. As the Mail & Guardian has reported before, the water sector is now one where people are shot dead because of what they know. This is a world of big contracts, with high stakes. And a lot of pie to be shared between those with the right connections.

Two crises, in particular, illustrate how bad things are going.

In Giyani, a drought in 2009 led to R5-billion being budgeted to fix a water system that had suffered from little in the way of investment and maintenance. Large parts of that community still do not have water.

An investigation 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.”

That project is still not finished. The contractor, which the auditor general has recommended be investigated, has not been paid so stopped work.

The army has been deployed to deal with a similar crisis in the Vaal. Raw sewerage is flowing from broken wastewater treatment plants into the dam, which is the source of Gauteng’s drinking water. The crisis could have been averted with proper management. This is the same province that Mokonyane was premier of.

There are around a thousand water and sewerage plants in the country. Each one of these has to be maintained and upgraded. When things go wrong, and municipalities take that money to pay bloated salaries, or the money just gets stolen, national government steps in to fix the crisis. Contractors are appointed. Because it is a crisis, normal procurement processes can be bypassed.

Giyani and the Vaal are just a small example of the crisis in water, sewerage and sanitation.

There are 20-million people who should have clean drinking water. That is 20-million people where government has spent the money to get them clean water, but do not have clean water. The reason they don’t have water is because the money has been stolen, or contractors have not done their work.

This is the legacy that Mokonyane brings with her to the environment department. The department responsible for keeping the air that we breathe clean, and for safeguarding every single living thing in South Africa. It is also the department tasked with responding to the single greatest crisis that the country faces — climate change.

Failure here will be catastrophic.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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