High noon in Polokwane

By Greg Nicolson 20 January 2012

Finance minister Pravin Gordhan has cut through allegations that his Limpopo intervention was politically motivated and obstructed core services. Flanked by five Cabinet ministers, he faced media on Thursday in the province’s treasury, an institution that is, well, a basket case. By GREG NICOLSON.

The province’s accounts reveal a collapsed system of financial management and are startling given Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale and his team were playing with taxpayers’ money. Treasury paid some service providers as often as eight times per month, every 2.5 days, said Gordhan. The frequency of payments left no time for verification of contracts and tenders and cash management.

Since 2009, when Mathale became premier, unauthorised expenditure grew from R1.5-billion to R2.7-billion in 2011. “Unauthorised expenditure means you had a bucket for R100 but you started spending R200,” said Gordhan, whose exegesis of the accounts at times seemed more like a principal’s rebuke. After spelling “accrual”, Gordhan stuck to the legal line when asked about corruption, saying we must wait for investigations and charges. But, he said, the facts are there for all to see. “Expenditure reporting was shown not to be credible. Supply chain management processes were generally not in line with legal requirements.” Forensic investigations are underway and charges could follow.

Gordhan has been criticised by the Limpopo leadership for the timing of his intervention as factions of the ANC align ahead of the party’s December elective conference. On Thursday the government presented a united front. Gordhan was flanked by ministers who had taken charge of the Limpopo departments, and the team commanded a chunk of the treasury’s crammed boardroom.

National government has been under pressure in the province for obstructing essential services but the ministers asserted their commitment to delivery and released more damning statistics for Limpopo’s leadership. The province owes a fortune to suppliers but only half of its accruals could be verified as having a tender or contract. The province’s health department owes R138-million but only R67-million has been verified. It also has R427-million in assets with no supporting documents.

National health minister Aaron Motsoaledi said he pulled his car off the road when he heard on the radio that meals had stopped in the province’s hospitals. The ministerial team confirmed their commitment to providing services and Gordhan said the goal is to build a sustainable government that respects taxpayers’ money. “The non-delivery of food to hospitals was started by a rumour that service providers will not be paid.” It was one of a number of references to attempts to “sabotage” the intervention.

Gordhan tried to calm service providers. “All we are going to do is appeal to service providers. Have your documents ready. We want to pay within 30 days. At the same time, we are not going to pay eight times a month. We are not here to sabotage service providers. We are not here to make life difficult for them. The rule within government is to pay within 30 days… They must comply with the law. All of us must comply with the law.”

But the section 100 intervention has been interpreted as a political move against Zuma’s detractors in the province. Asked why Limpopo was placed under administration when other provinces have higher debts, Gordhan referred the question to a national treasury official who said “the notion that money has been withheld is a false notion” because of payment schedules. Then Gordhan interjected, “No other province has a cash crisis which requires a billion rand bailout. Can we make that clear?”

In addition to the financial and procurement rot, human resources was also flagged as an issue. The education department has failed to order its textbooks on time and is weighed down by extra staff. There are 2,400 excess teachers and 200 “ghost teachers” – staff who aren’t accounted for yet receive a salary.

Despite their pictures hanging on the boardroom wall right next those of Gordhan and President Jacob Zuma, Premier Cassel Mathale and treasury MEC David Masondo were not present to comment. When asked why none of the provincial executive committee attended, Gordhan, on one of his wittier days, replied, because it’s a national government press conference. If you were accused of jeopardising health, education, public works, roads and transport and bringing a government to the brink of collapse, would you turn up? DM




Photo: Greg Nicolson / iMaverick



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