Water theft: Thirty years of looting

By July 2017 it was clear that something was going terribly wrong at the water and sanitation department. Four very senior officials had been suspended, adding to the 900 vacancies. In the previous year, the department had overspent its budget and quadrupled its debt to R2.6-billion, yet only achieved a quarter of the goals it had set for itself.

By any system of measurement, the department tasked with overseeing South Africa’s most important resource was on the verge of collapse and some 20-million people in 2017 did not have a clean and reliable source of water, according to Statistics SA.

Much of this failure was blamed on then water minister Nomvula Mokonyane. Mired in allegations of corruption in huge water projects, such as those in Lesotho and Limpopo, she would soon be replaced in a Cabinet reshuffle when Cyril Ramaphosa became president.

She has denied the long list of corruption allegations against her.

Mokonyane nearly delivered the coup de grâce, but new research has found that the rot in the department was more than two decades in the making. Titled “Dam State Capture: Its Cascading Effect On the Department of Water and Sanitation”, the report maps out how the department’s capacity and oversight mechanisms were eroded, leaving it open to near-complete destruction.

Published in the journal Transformation, it begins: “The South African state has transformed since 1994, but not in the way many people had hoped or expected.”

The report argues that state capture in the department happened in two phases. The first, in the 1990s and 2000s, came in three main thrusts: securing control over the department and weakening its oversight capacity, centralising control and then weakening legislation.

This crisis was exacerbated by the government inheriting a country that hadn’t built water infrastructure for a third of the population. Huge water projects — dams, pipelines and taps — were needed. The research found that these projects were handed over to “under-capacitated municipalities to operate and maintain”.

 Former water and sanitation minister Nomvula Mokonyane, brought in by then president Jacob Zuma in 2014, has denied allegations of corruption. (Kopano Tlape)

But corruption was overwhelming municipalities, among them Giyani in Limpopo and Standerton in Mpumalanga where infrastructure collapsed because the budgets to maintain water treatment plants and pipelines were stolen. Municipalities also had skills shortages, a situation that persists today. Currently just 76 of the country’s 278 municipalities have an engineer on staff, according to the South African Institute for Civil Engineers.

It wasn’t just the municipalities that were corruption-ridden. In the 1990s the big water projects were also plagued by fraud and theft.


In the early 2000s, then water minister Buyelwa Sonjica started to reshuffle the department “to achieve rapid transformation”. Because the process was mismanaged, this “resulted in the loss of critical skills” and “the weakening of institutional controls to counter corruption”, the report reads.

At this time, failures in water provision tended to be put down to incompetence and a shortage of skills in the department, according to the research. But, looking at what happened with the help of hindsight, a “more insidious reality” was unfolding — “the transformation of the state [including the water department] through its capture”.

By the time the “lost decade” arrived with the election of Jacob Zuma as president, the water department was in disarray and primed for plundering.

The Mail & Guardian has spoken to current and former employees, who detailed a department where the focus was on profit at the expense of the department’s motto: “Water is life”.

The greatest corruption, according to auditor general reports, seemed to be in large infrastructure projects and in the department’s information technology (IT) systems. Permanent employees said they would be subcontracted to work at the department, with the person who employed them — who is also a department employee — charging the ministry for the “subcontractors” and then pocketing the difference.

Large infrastructure projects, where the most money can be stolen, became particularly attractive. Employees said Zuma’s pronouncement in successive State of the Nation addresses that big builds were the way to go came as a “gift” to those who sought to profit and favour their friends.

Those who pushed back against the corruption were pushed out. The report includes an infamous example of this: director general Pam Yako, who “made a notable attempt to combat corruption”. This included “cancelling an IT contract to a large ANC donor”. In response, “a network of corrupt officials, consultants and service providers orchestrated a deliberate process against her”, which resulted in her suspension. The official reason given was her alleged involvement in a suspicious R300-million tender.

She was acquitted.

The corruption and collapse of the department was, according to the research, “exacerbated dramatically” from 2014, when Mokonyane was appointed. In her time the focus was on “weeding out skilled professionals” and “weakening procurement processes and financial controls”.

Her interference in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project set it back by more than a decade, which means Gauteng will probably run out of water the next time there is an El Niño drought, sometime this decade. Referred to in the media as “Watergate”, this interference was allegedly to benefit a major political donor, LTE Holdings. The construction, engineering and procurement company is being chased by the Special Investigating Unit for its involvement in the failure to provide water to people in the Giyani area.

Under Mokonyane’s tenure, the research says: “There were unprecedented rates of staff turnover and alarming number of vacancies and top-level suspensions, which produced an environment in which staff members were vulnerable to arbitrary decision-making.”

In 2015, the department conducted an internal review, which it used to try to justify the suspension of officials. When Parliament’s water committee attempted to get answers from the department, it was told suspensions were “consequence management”.

In a further erosion of oversight, the Blue and Green Drop reports, which respectively measured the state of the country’s water and sewerage treatment plants, were cancelled. The unreleased 2014 blue drop report, which the M&G has seen, said the number of municipalities treating water to safe, drinking quality had halved to 44 in the previous two years.

There is now no data on the quality of drinking water or the rate at which sewage is being released into rivers.

The department’s enforcement arm, the Blue Scorpions, was reduced to three dozen inspectors and has zero convictions for criminal offences such as polluting water or operating without a water licence.

By the end of 2017 the department was close to “institutional collapse”, according to the report. It had 900 vacancies, a R2.6-billion overdraft and, according to the auditor general, a quarter of its budget was unaccounted for.

The research concludes that systematic destruction of the department — and the subsequent corruption — “supports an interpretation that ministers intentionally undermined management and formal oversight operations”.

There are now about 21-million people without clean water — a third of the population.

The water and sanitation department, to which the human settlements portfolio has been added, is now headed by Lindiwe Sisulu. According to M&G reports in November, Sisulu appointed 15 people who worked on her 2017 campaign to become ANC president, in preparation for the next ANC elective conference. Sisulu denies this was the reason for employing them. A Cabinet reshuffle was mooted late last year to move her away from her portfolio, which will be key in the local government elections next year, where housing, water and sanitation issues tend to dominate.

This week, the department was criticised for not opening itself up for scrutiny by its parliamentary committee and continued its trend of submitting its quarterly report late. The committee’s chairperson said the department presents “disastrous results” as if they are “normal” and it has no clear turnaround strategy.


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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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