/ 15 March 2024

Giyani water debacle ‘not all our fault’

Stan Mathabatha (1)
Limpopo premier Stan Mathabatha. Photos: Marketing and Comms, University of Limpopo

Limpopo premier Stan Mathabatha conceded this week that the provincial and national governments should take collective responsibility for the R4.1 billion Giyani water project which has suffered numerous delays.

At a town hall election debate hosted by the Mail & Guardian and the University of Limpopo on Tuesday night, ahead of the general elections on 29 May, Mathabatha said water was the responsibility of the national government and the failures around the project should not be thought of as an indictment on his administration alone.

The project has been dogged by constant stoppages and allegations of corruption, with officials flouting supply-chain management processes.

A Special Investigating Unit probe report, which was tabled before parliament’s standing committee on public accounts in November, revealed widespread corruption in the tender processes.

The report showed companies had been awarded tenders unlawfully, resulting in the cost of the project ballooning from R90 million to R4.1 billion.

The project — which was commissioned in 2014 — was meant to solve the water supply challenges in 55 villages in Giyani.

Mathabatha said he was willing to be held accountable — as part of a collective including the national government. 

“I belong to the party that leads Limpopo, that is why I am saying I’m going to take collective accountability, but it can’t be squarely put on the premier,” he said.  

He said the process of correcting the mistakes made in the Giyani water project was close to being finalised, telling the town hall audience: “Ask me in the upcoming two months — at least 33 villages in Giyani will be receiving water.”

During the debate, Mathabatha got pushback when he touted official data showing that unemployment in Limpopo was easing. 

Some in the audience pointed out that many residents had been forced to move to other provinces in search of jobs.

Responding to a question about the high unemployment in the country under the ANC government, Mathabatha pointed out that joblessness in Limpopo had retreated in the past year to around 30% of the labour force.

But, as he was making this argument, members of the audience shouted that unemployment in the province was actually 49%, probably a reference to the expanded definition of unemployment, which includes people who have given up looking for work. Some economists argue that this definition provides a more accurate reflection of the job situation in the country.

During Tuesday’s debate, one of the guests, Sello Letswalo, took Mathabatha to task over his promise of 48 000 new jobs during his 2022 state of the province address, saying unemployment remained too high.

In response, Mathabatha pointed out that the jobless rate in Limpopo had eased over the last few quarters, saying “unemployment is increasing at a decreasing rate”. 

But he conceded that it was still too high and was of concern to his administration.

“It’s not like we are saying we are happy about it; it’s a problem for us also. To give you an example, in the 2023 financial year, we lost 40 000 jobs [according to] Statistics South Africa but, in the same year, we created 182 000 jobs.” 

Stats SA data says the official unemployment rate in Limpopo eased to 30.3% in the fourth quarter of 2023 from 30.8% in the third. It was down from 31.8% a year ago. 

The province was worse off than the Western Cape (20.3%), Northern Cape (26.9%) and KwaZulu-Natal (29.5%) but fared better than Gauteng (33.8%), Mpumalanga (34.9%), Free State (37%) North West (39%) and Eastern Cape (41.9%)

Unemployment has fuelled poverty in South Africa. According to World Bank data, about 55.5%, or 30.3 million people, live in poverty, based on the national upper poverty line of R992, while 13.8 million people, or 25%, are experiencing food poverty.

Mathabatha said the high national unemployment rate — currently at 32.1% — could not be blamed solely on the ANC government’s 30-year rule, arguing that the jobs crunch dated back to the 1980s. 

He added that technological advancements had done away with some jobs.

“Technology is also a disadvantage to us but we can’t, as people who are development-oriented, say we must stop being economically comparative in terms of bringing machines into play,” the premier said.

“You have to come up with ways and means of developing people, developing skills in universities that will be relevant to universities such as this one, and that will be relevant to the needs of this economy.” 

One of the panellists, president of the student representative council Lekau Mamabolo, said Mathabatha could not blame technology for the lack of jobs, arguing that some of the most advanced nations in the world were creating work for their people.

“Recently the president of the United States, on his campaign trail, said unemployment was at its all-time low since Covid even though they have all these machines. When you go to their McDonald’s, you don’t see people [but machines, but] despite the technological advancements in those counties, they are still able to create jobs,” Mamabolo said.

He added Mathabatha should not scare people by suggesting machines were going to take away their jobs and the government should rather focus on creating employment.

Another panellist, Professor Sam Koma, said South Africa was among the countries with the highest levels of unemployment. He said the governing party needed to acknowledge that the Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy it had introduced in 1996 had fuelled job losses.

“The economy was growing at acceptable levels but also people in different economic sectors lost jobs in massive numbers due in part to the privatisation of state-owned enterprises,” Koma said.