Water dept defends deployment of Cuban engineers in reply to Solidarity court application

The deployment of 25 Cuban engineers with “expert knowledge” to assist the department of water and sanitation with infrastructure maintenance will cost R18.3-million per year, not the R64-million that has been reported. 

Furthermore, the South African Qualifications Authority “has assessed the engineering qualifications of the Cuban engineers and have been able to determine the equivalent qualifications to qualifications attained in South Africa”. 

The rationale behind deploying the Cubans “was based on their rare and exclusive expertise in relation to maintaining and prolonging the lifespan of water and sanitation related infrastructure”.

The statements have been made in a responding affidavit made by the department to trade union Solidarity’s high court application. 

The union is seeking an interim interdict to stop the department from continuing the Cuban engineers project until a review application that seeks to have the decision to import Cubans be declared invalid.

But the department wants Solidarity’s application dismissed with costs, saying it is  “materially defective for failing to have joined all parties who have a direct and substantial interest in the matter”, such as the president, the department of international relations and co-operation, Cuba itself and the engineers.

Last month, water and sanitation minister Lindiwe Sisulu held a ceremony for the engineers in Pretoria, where she encouraged South Africans to welcome them. In a statement issued after the ceremony, Sisulu said the Cubans would be in the country for three years and would be receiving a “monthly stipend”. 

The state’s penchant for using Cuban professionals partly based on ideological similarities has caused anger among some of the South African population and has sparked fierce debate. 

Detractors have argued that because of the country’s 32.7% unemployment rate — worsened by the Covid-19 lockdown and subsequent retrenchments — local professionals and graduates have been sitting at home. Employing the foreign engineers is deemed short sighted, insulting and illogical. 

In April, the Consulting Engineers of South Africa (Cesa) published a statement saying that “since 2012 the capacity utilization of local engineering skills has dropped from a utilization rate of 95% to the current 80% in the most recent survey”.

“Employing highly skilled locally experienced engineers supported by unemployed graduates will provide a more sustainable solution,” Cesa chief executive Chris Campbell said in the statement. 

In the affidavit deposed by the water department’s acting director general Deborah Mochotlhi — dated 25 May — it is stated that the engineers will cost the department R18.3-million per year.

 “They receive an entry-level of salary level 11 in the public service which amounts to R733 257” per engineer, per year. 

According to the affidavit, “the whole of the budget allocation for the current financial year is R61-million”. 

“This budget makes provision for the cost of employment (salaries) and goods and services (computers, cellphones, vehicles, accommodation et cetera).” 

Furthermore, according to Mochotlhi, the remuneration and expenses of the Cubans are not paid from the annual allocation made by the treasury in terms of the Division of Revenue Act. 

Rather, she states, they are being paid from the department’s water trading entity account, “which receives funds from all holders of water use licenses issued by the department”. 

This, according to Mochotlhi, means that the foreign engineers are not being paid by the “taxpayer”, as Solidarity had stated in its founding affidavit. 

Mochotlhi said it was up to the department to decide how it would use the funds from the water trading entity account. 

This is the third time Cuban engineers have been used in the country, said Mochotlhi, and the department had to “carefully” consider the latest deployment, but decided it was the right decision after “analysing the benefits” the engineers brought to the department in previous deployments. 

Mochotlhi goes on to list some of these benefits, and later says the second deployment had “rendered services on 271 government waterworks and 165 projects”. 

“They were allocated with supervisors and most of them were also involved in mentoring and skills transfer to department staff, graduate trainees and in some cases to officials working in municipalities.”

The agreement with the Cuban professionals, as with other international partnerships, would enable South Africa to remain “globally relevant”, said Mochotlhi, as both countries would benefit through the exchange of information. 

She states that the Cuban agreement is nothing “foreign or strange” as the department has international agreements with several other countries, including the Netherlands, Japan, Denmark, Italy and Hungary. 

She says that Sisulu exercised her executive authority in terms of section 85(2)(b) and/or (e) of the constitution in employing the Cubans. The agreement was concluded in February 2020.

Mochotlhi said the department had budgeted and allocated “approximately R8.057-billion for private contractors and service providers during the current financial year”.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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