Orange Farm: No help from Public Works

By M De Waal & G Marinovich 17 July 2012

President Jacob Zuma’s big dream was to create millions of job to tackle the twin devils of poverty and unemployment, and Public Works was the department tasked with realising that vision. But mired in a quicksand of fraud and mismanagement, Public Works’ massive job initiative has just created problems for the poor in Orange Farm – the very people it is supposed to be helping. By MANDY DE WAAL and GREG MARINOVICH.

It is a cold winter’s day in Orange Farm, where a huddle of people sit in a corrugated iron shed at a human rights centre. These are the beneficiaries of Jacob Zuma’s massive infrastructure development plan, which is being implemented by the Department of Public Works to drive job creation.

But Benneth Mongwe – a community leader in Orange Farm – and the handful of others with him – look anything but happy, telling Daily Maverick how government’s grand job plan is playing out here.

“The government is trying to provide jobs through Public Works, but those who get the tenders are the people that are exploiting the people. You will find the boss won’t pay you for the month or he will only pay you after 18 days. Sometimes you can stay without pay for two months. Sometimes he doesn’t even have money to pay for material and then we must down tools,” says Mongwe. 

When a bullish Zuma entered office in 2009, he promised South Africa that four million jobs would be created by government by 2014. But as Zuma’s term matured, jobs were being created as fast as they were being lost, which resulted in the president reshaping his rhetoric – hastily dropping the means to measure the outcome of his promises.

The sharp end of the government’s battle against poverty and unemployment is the Expanded Public Works Programme, a massive labour market intervention. But in Orange Farm, community leaders say the job creation programme is working so badly they were better off without it.

Mongwe says a good example of how the Public Works initiative isn’t working, is the upgrade that’s being done to Raphela Secondary School near Orange Farm’s Stratford Station. Workers on that project were paid late; they had to down tools when the contractor ran out of funds for materials; they were ‘punished’ when they spoke out by not being given other jobs with the same contractor.

To add insult to injury, when the Raphela Secondary School opened for a new term this week, work was unfinished. There were no doors on the classrooms, and some windows were incomplete. Students refused to enter the building, saying that they didn’t want to freeze during lessons.

“The contractor (at Raphela Secondary School) said Public Works hadn’t paid him. This contractor has a lot of projects and if he doesn’t benefit from one project he will take the money from another project,” says Mongwe, who reels off a list of months when workers on the project were paid late.

“This kind of thing happens often and I can’t remember a single day that we were paid on the right date. We were only paid after 18 days, or after 21 days and sometimes after two months. To survive, we are making loans, and we pay interest on those loans. We get loans from neighbours and if you take something like R100 you have to pay with R130 but we have no choice because life must go on and you won’t stay on an empty stomach,” says Mongwe.

The construction at Raphela Secondary School is being managed by Kopano Kofifi Projects CC, which regularly tenders for multi-million rand government developments or refurbishments. “On the issue of the late payment, do you know that we are also getting paid by the client as we do the work, which is the government?” asked Tshgofatso Moyo, speaking for Kopano Kofifi Projects. “There were points where we had not received payment from the government and we did notify them,” he added.

“You know the government. Sometimes they tell you that they are working with the budget and we will have to wait for three months to get paid, and then we also didn’t have funds to pay the workers. But as soon as the funds were in our account everyone got paid. Even today we don’t have any outstanding salaries. All the employees have been paid,” said Moyo, who added that the school project had been delayed but would be finished at the end of July, some four months late.

“What caused the delay was the late payments. We weren’t paid by the government so we couldn’t get materials or that kind of stuff, so we applied for an extension and it was granted,” says Moyo. 

After Zuma took office in 2009, the Department of Public Works launched a programme called “Operation Re Ya Patala” (Operation We Pay) to eradicate payment backlogs to service providers. The general idea, then, was to finalise the payment of invoices that had been outstanding for more than 30 days in just seven working days. This was a fairly ambitious task, more so for a government office plagued by fraud and inefficiency.

Thulas Nxesi took over as Minister of Public Works in October last year, after Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde was sacked for being implicated in the Bheki Cele police headquarters lease saga. At the time he realised he had a hell of a task in front of him, what with the Auditor General’s qualified audits for Public Works and the SIU (Special Investigating Unit) revelation that some R3 billion’s worth of tenders could have been awarded irregularly.

In April this year, Sunday Times reported that Nxesi openly admitted in a staff meeting in Durban that Public Works was a complete shambles. “We have created a mess,” Nxesi said at the meeting. “There are a lot of shenanigans. All big tenders have a problem. It’s a fact that there are serious problems in the department – officials disregarding supply-chain management procedures and accepting big gifts, such as cars.

“We have people looting and even saying ‘It’s our time to eat’. They act as if they own the department. They do shoddy work but know they will get tenders without following procedures. The department is in a shambles – so much so that some government buildings and property have been stolen. What kind of department is this where officials can even steal property?” Nxesi asked.

In Gauteng’s provincial government, the public works was renamed the Department of Infrastructure Development, but despite the new moniker, the department is quite the chip off the old block. Earlier this year, when the Auditor General announced that some R6.6 billion had been wasted because of unauthorised, irregular and wasteful expenditure, the department of infrastructure development was labelled amongst the worst-run and most wasteful in the country.

Daily Maverick approached the MEC of Infrastructure Development‘s spokesperson, Philemon Motshwaedi, for comment on the Orange Farm matter, but despite saying he’d respond in time, there was no word from him at the time of publishing.

Back in Orange Farm, people like Mongwe and Maureen Moloko suffer the brunt of the wastage and mismanagement. “Public Works must monitor their projects. If they give someone a tender they must make sure that they monitor the work. On May we didn’t get paid, on June we didn’t get paid because the contractor said they don’t have money… they said Public Works didn’t have money.”

She adds: “What I want to ask Public Works is how can they give a person without any money a contract? That person doesn’t have anything but they give them a tender – that is why we are struggling, most of the people, who are labourers for these tenders.”

Zuma’s infrastructure initiative is supposed to be getting the impoverished out of debt, but for people like Moloko and Mongwe, it has resulted in struggling to simply get paid, seeking support from local rights groups for labour remedies, and an erosion of earnings because of interest from loans that had to be taken out to keep food on the table.

“With this kind of work you won’t get out of poverty,” says Moloko. “With this way of doing things you will never get out (of poverty), and most of the time you will suffer.”

Daily Maverick asks Moloko and Mongwe whether their identities must be protected after they report that people who complain about contractors or tenders don’t get further work. 

“If you complain you must know that you are not going to get a job,” says Mongwe. “But use our names. We are not scared,” he articulates with a smile, as Moloko nods her head in agreement. “We are not scared, because if you keep silent this thing will not end.” DM

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Photo: Orange Farm by Kyle Taylor 

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