Politics

Big Brother reins in crumbling provincial departments

By Stephen Grootes 6 December 2011

Cabinet has decided to take over a large slice of provincial government. In all, seven provincial departments are being taken over, and two others will have national officials poking over their shoulders. It's an important move. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The mess in Limpopo, and to a lesser extent the Free State, needs to be cleared up. A long running sore in Gauteng needs some lancing too. It is about service non-delivery and politics, but it’s also about much more than that. It’s about incompetence – on a grand scale. And it shows competence is not a measure for appointment to a government job.

Us media hacks tend to focus on the urban areas. The big things like judicial appointments and special investigating units. It’s perfectly natural; our audiences tend to be in the urban areas. As a result, there is a democratic deficit in the more rural provinces with smaller centres. Which is probably why the Cabinet decision came as a bit of a shocker.

Limpopo has very little independent media. There is very little monitoring of service delivery. Critical reporting is pretty much left to the City Press’s Piet Rampedi – who first broke this story on Monday.

This is partly why it’s Limpopo where five departments (really, you can count them) have been put under administration. And it’s the departments that matter: the provincial treasury, health, education, public works, and transport and roads. The spark for this was a request by the province two weeks ago to borrow R1 billion, as it had run out of money. Not for service delivery, but to pay salaries. In short, these departments are broke. They could not continue. In the end the national treasury made a payment a little earlier than planned to tide them over.

Where has the money gone? The short, snide answer, will be to say that one should go to Sandton, and ask a soon to be defenestrated Young Lion. When it comes to the transport and roads issues, no doubt the Hawks will have a quick peek. But the longer answer has to do with a lack of political accountability, and no oversight.

There is very little opposition to the ANC in Limpopo. Political battles there are about intra-ANC politics, and the big one is looming fast. The Limpopo ANC’s holding its elective leadership conference in literally two weeks time. And there’s a strong challenge to Premier Cassel Mathale’s leadership of the provincial ANC from former deputy communications minister Joe Phaahla. The stakes here are pretty high. Should Mathale lose, it will be a body blow not just to him, but also to Julius Malema. The two really go hand in hand in the province. And as their financial lives appear to be intertwined, what could happen to one in a criminal investigation, could happen to the other.

Both the national treasury and the Limpopo ANC say this action has nothing to do with politics. But it surely must have something to do with the incompetence and perhaps even kleptrocratic nature of Mathale’s government. Thus he should be out and Phaahla should be in – with all the change that entails and all the mess it will mean for Malema, who will suddenly have no base anymore. And that would be another indication of how clear the writing on the wall is for him.

However, competence has nothing to do with internal ANC elections. Really. You don’t believe us. Remember Gwen Ramakgopa? Appointed to run Tshwane when it was a normal metro municipality. Left it in tatters. Got promoted to deputy Gauteng ANC leader as a result. Of course, it was only because she could bring what was seen as crucial support for Paul Mashatile, who was facing the provincial Premier in an election that turned out to be not very close at all. The simple fact of the matter is that in Limpopo, incompetence has been promoted for political reasons again and again, and now the whole machine simply can’t function anymore. And money just gets wasted. It’s gone, never to be reclaimed. Pravin Gordhan must be having a fit.

And let’s not fool ourselves, this intervention allows the national government to actually replace MECs on an acting basis. It’s serious stuff. And yes, you can imagine the hell that would break loose should it ever be tried in a DA controlled province.

But there is a salutary warning for Cabinet here. About a year ago the basic education ministry took over the Eastern Cape education department. And about six months after that, basic education minister Angie Motshekga was asked in Parliament how that project was going. She spoke emotionally about how provincial officials just refused to work with national ones. They just refused. And the problem the department has, of course, is that the teachers union Sadtu is too strong (its president is the headmaster of one of the worst performing schools in the country. You guessed it, it’s in the Eastern Cape). The final result is a stalemate. The final outcome is simply children whose prospects in life are worse than even that of their parents.

In Gauteng, matters are interesting, but a little less disheartening. The intervention here relates to two simple-ish but long-running matters. First the “supply chain management problems” as the official statement puts it. The health department has not been paying suppliers. As Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane put it two weeks ago, it only pays 7% of its suppliers within 30 days. Can you imagine doing business like that? So the suppliers stop supplying: food, blankets, medicines, things like that. This has been going for about half as long as the Joburg billing crisis. So about four-and-a-half years. Finally someone is taking action.

But there’s politics here too. Last year Mokonyane was forced by Mashatile to reshuffle her cabinet. She had to accommodate four of his people, but was allowed to pick their jobs. Health being one of the nastier political jobs going, in went Ntombi Mekgwe. It’s a hospital pass. But it worked, for Mokonyane. Now Mekgwe looks like she’s the one who’s messed this up, even though it goes way back.

The other issue relates to the Gauteng Shared Services Centre, a grand plan that would see all departments funnel their procurement through one agency. Hasn’t worked. May finally get fixed.

In the final analysis, intervention from the national government in these situations is a good thing. But it’s also a huge admission of massive and total failure in these provinces. However, until the ANC ensures that competence is a requirement somehow in provincial politics, the only prediction we can make is that there will be much more to come. DM



Photo: REUTERS

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