Leaving a department that has completely collapsed – the case against Nomvula Mokonyane
‘Mama Action’ Nomvula Mokonyane should be put to digging trenches for water pipes, not spin doctoring government messages. That would be sweat equity for the billions misspent during her tenure at water and sanitation department that seems to have mostly benefited consultants, or "implementing agents" in government speak. That’s as communities across South Africa have been left high and dry, and the country still not having a proper plan to face the future of increased water scarcity, drought or no drought.
It’s a mess. That’s according to Water and Sanitation Minister Gugile Nkwinti, who on Wednesday told MPs his new department was in a financial and administrative shambles, as News24 reported.
It’s all a little odd, given the lack of progress on land reform and restitution Nkwinti had in his previous portfolio of rural development. But okay. In the juggling of ANC factional interests, there may be a reason to keep former water and sanitation minister Nomvula Mokonyane in Cabinet, even if only to allow President Cyril Ramaphosa to dismiss any whispering campaign that he’s purging those who over the past decade or so were firm defenders of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.
Mokonyane, who appears to have taken to her new communications portfolio like a duck to water in a drought, has kept mum about her former ministry track record. She did not respond when asked about the financial mess at her first Cabinet media briefing shortly after Ramaphosa’s reshuffle late on 26 February – and a few days a tough meeting of Parliament’s watchdog on public spending, the Standing Committee of Public Accounts (Scopa), which raised the spectre of a collapsed department amid a series of acting top officials, lack of procurement compliance and financial misspending.
“Scopa is concerned that it is ordinary people who are affected by the instability and financial mismanagement in this department, because South Africa is a water-stressed country,” said Scopa chairperson Themba Godi in a statement after a tough meeting with officials seemingly unwilling to answer MPs questions.
“In reality, Minister Nomvula Mokonyane has left a department that has completely collapsed. It is worrying that she is now a Minister of Communications at a time when the South African Broadcasting Corporation is recovering,” Godi added.
After almost four years of Mokonyane at the helm of water and sanitation, there is an approximately R4-billion financial hole of irregular expenditure in the 2016/17 financial year, significantly up from the R2.49-billion only a year earlier. There are questions as to whether the department actually is a going concern as its liabilities exceed its assets by over R400-million. There are questions over performance, given that the only consistency is consistently missed targets, up to 72% in the water infrastructure development progamme that drained most of the money.
This is not fake news, but data from the auditor-general report which gave the Water and Sanitation Department a qualified audit. That’s just about as bad as it gets.
“The DWS (Water and Sanitation Department) did not manage its finances optimally,” was the rigorously polite verdict given in a briefing to MPs on 23 March 2018.
Understatement of the year, perhaps, but enough to get up Mokonyane’s nose. There had been much ministerial gushing over challenging that qualified audit verdict since its officially release in November 2017. Not so much about getting the governance and financial management stuff right, but about challenging the audit outcome based on the department’s own records, or lack thereof.
“The contestation and pressure placed on the audit teams, without sufficient grounds, appear to be motivated by the DWS wanting to avoid negative audit outcomes and disclosures of irregular as well as fruitless and wasteful expenditure,” said the Office of the Auditor-General in its briefing to the 23 March joint meeting of Scopa and the water and sanitation committee.
“The service providers to the DWS where irregular and fruitless and wasteful expenditure were noted also threatened the AGSA with legal action.”
It’s on public record that Mokonyane throughout maintained it was her constitutional duty as the guardian of South Africa’s water resources to provide water in cases of emergency. And that she would do just that. But this ignores the legislative requirements under the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) and Disaster Management Act that emergency interventions must be wrapped within three months, not snowball into year-on-year extensions.
Take the water project at Giyani, Limpopo. By many accounts access to reliable safe water is still not secured, yet project costs have ballooned to R2.2-billion in the 2016/17 financial year, up from R1.3-billion the previous year. These billions were deemed irregular expenditure because Lepelle Northern Water, already involved in two other projects, did not follow normal procurement following a ministerial directive. And it was consultants who benefited, as City Press reported earlier in 2018. On Wednesday it emerged that the department had only R104-million for that project in the current financial year, effectively a shortfall of over R170-million, and that’s just for phase one which does not cover the reticulation of water where it is needed, in residential areas.
There are other curiosities. Water and Sanitation officials told MPs on 14 March 2018 that boreholes drilled to relieve water shortages in Giyani cost R400,000 per borehole, but when grilled why R317-million had been spent, conceded each borehole actually cost R2.4-million, given pipes, electricity and other stuffs.
Targets of planned provision of tanks as alternate sources of water were also missed. While R500-million was spent on the Clanwilliam Dam in the Western Cape, work stopped at a crucial moment and remains outstanding. The emergency water supply project at Butterworth in the Eastern Cape – announced in October 2017, the 18-month project goes well beyond the PFMA and Disaster Management Act three-month time limit for such – has been allocated R10-million for the current financial year, MPs heard on Wednesday, leaving the project R190-million short.
The much talked-about uMzimvumbu Dam, six years after being announced in Zuma’s 2012 State of the Nation Address (SONA) as the water supply solution for the Eastern Cape – and touted by Mokonyane in her 2017 budget vote speech as critical – has not even seen a soil turning ceremony. Other projects are behind time and over budget, while the alarm bells should be ringing over reports that, according to an insider, 84% of wastewater treatment plants are “dysfunctional”.
It’s on public record at Parliament that the department paid significantly higher than official rates determined by the Public Service and Administration Department to those so-called implementing agencies – up to R3,500 per hour. Paid were invoices by, for example, one expert who invoiced 160 hours a month for project management, while also billing 160 hours in the same month as engineering fundi.
After over a year after fluffy PR statements on the War on Leaks, all hitting the right notes of providing jobs and on the job training for young people, that programme actually was not funded. In the 2016/17 financial year, the latest for which audited and verified numbers are available, R1.2-billion was spent regardless with monies drafted in from elsewhere.
The plan when this programmes was announced by Zuma in late 2015 was to have 15,000 learners enrolled by mid-2017, but by March that year the Sowetan reported how hundreds of learners simply sat at home.
And the 2018/19 water and sanitation annual performance plan, recently tabled in Parliament, shows a very different picture to this youth employment and training effort: under the performance indicator of number of learners that complete training through the WoL (War on Leaks) programme, it simply says “-”. The planned target only kicks in this 2018/19 financial year with a planned 2,640 learners completing training.
Ditto the eradication of bucket toilets, for which no dedicated budget could be found for all intents and purposes. Still, during her 2017 budget vote debate Mokonyane said 26,900 of the verified 52,300 buckets had been eradicated, and of the outstanding 25,400 bucket toilets, 14,000 were in the process of being replaced. That programme also appears not to have been funded with dedicated allocations.
Eradicating bucket toilets and fixing leaks in water pipes are central to reliable safe potable water – and South African citizens’ dignity. As early as 2014 the South African Human Rights Commission identified serious challenges in its Report on the Right to Access Sufficient Water and Decent Sanitation in South Africa: 2014. Triggered by complaints from Moqhaka council in the Free State and Khayelitsha in the City of Cape Town, both of which were found guilty of violating citizens rights, the commission held countrywide public hearings. Its report is damning.
“There is a lack of a human rights-based approach to the delivery of water and sanitation services. This relates to the principles of transparency and public participation, in the delivery of basic services and access to information,” it said, highlighting that while national statistics may indicate improved access, at a disaggregated local level the reality was very different.
“The report highlights systemic failures in governance and budgeting, particularly in the implementation of and spending on projects. These failures point to the need for government to evaluate the current models of governance and funding.”
The SAHRC report is dedicated to six-year-old Michael Komape, who died in a faeces filled pit latrine at school in February 2014, “all those who have been injured or killed while protesting for their rights to water and sanitation”, and those who continue to struggle to live in dignity, a constitutional right alongside the right to sufficient food, health and water.
It is unclear whether Mokonyane, who came in as water and sanitation minister after the May 2014 elections, or anyone else in government actually read this report.
While Cape Town’s Day Zero hype about running out of water showcased party politicking not only between the ANC-led national government and the DA’s provincial and metro administration but also within the DA, the impact of water supply crises has hit countrywide – from Ugu in KwaZulu-Natal to Butterworth, various municipalities in the Free State, including Mangaung metro where water restrictions have been in place since July 2015, and North West, where three people died in 2014 due to contaminated water supplies, a situation that has persisted to today. The recent drought has only aggravated the situation elsewhere.
Water is complicated. According to law, the water minister is responsible, but it’s municipalities that must maintain infrastructure and ensure distribution within their city limits for which they receive various government grants. A number of water boards and provincial departments also have a role to play alongside water catchment management agencies.
The scope for finger pointing and blame shifting is great. Municipalities are blamed for not doing enough to stem leaks, estimated at 37% of all water supplies, upping pressure on South Africa’s scarce water resources and revenue generation. Water boards, entities and the national department blame municipal debt, but have not done their own bit to ensure adequate debt collection and systems to monitor this. On Wednesday officials shrugged and argued that their estimate of just over R11-billion income from water sales was 90% of the income of the previous year to take into account “the culture of non-payment by municipalities”. But it’s not actually certain that money will be collected.
Never mind that the department has had an ever-changing organogram and its top leadership has been mostly acting. Or as the auditor-general noted two months ago: there had been four directors-general in the past four years – CFO Sifiso Mkhize is back for his second acting DG stint – while most deputy directors-general are also merely acting.
“Three deputy directors-general (DDGs) were also placed on suspension and returned to work without any evidence that investigations had been conducted and/or concluded,” the auditor-general told MPs in March.
The drive by water and sanitation remains on dam and other big ticket infrastructure build. Yet its draft National Water Master Plan indicates the need for business unusual.
“Based on projections, if no substantive action is taken the water deficit by 2030 could be between 2.7 and 3.8 billion m3/a (cubic meter per annum), a gap of about 17% of available surface and ground water.”
That means water will become even more scarce in water-scarce South Africa. Yet there appears to be little urgency from officialdom to make the much needed changes: according to the current annual performance plan, the aim is to table this plan – the draft was released for public comment in December 2017 – in Cabinet some time this financial year. That’s some time before 31 March 2019 and, as governance goes, without Cabinet approval implementation remains a pipe dream.
All this has raised the ire and concern of MPs of the water and sanitation committee and Scopa. While the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) has briefed the committees jointly on its probes into irregularities, on 14 March 2018 MPs also met to finalise terms of reference for a parliamentary inquiry.
There are plans to have the department submit monthly reports, not just the traditional quarterly ones, for closer scrutiny. There’s the gatvol factor. The water and sanitation committee’s October 2017 budget review and recommendation report stressing the need for procurement compliance, tighter expenditure monitoring, action against transgressors and better co-operation with other departments like co-operative governance was ignored. That report is part of the parliamentary Budget oversight process and meant to be taken seriously by officials and ministers alike.
That committee report came after the 2017 water and sanitation budget, vote 36, was almost not passed due to the red flags over financial, administrative and governance failings. Parliament has the right not to, under the 2009 Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act. But after last-minute interventions, it got the go-ahead, as Business Day reported, quoting an unnamed opposition MP describing the departmental finances as “messier than a pit latrine”.
It’s Budget vote time again. And it’s déjà vu. On Wednesday the water and sanitation committee did not mince their words.
“The department has collapsed… The capacity of the department is zero,” said ANC MP Patrick Chauke.
At the start of this tough meeting, Nkwinti had pleaded with MPs for time to allow him to go to various places and see for himself what was happening. After the department’s R15.5-billion budget was passed later in May, he told MPs, there could be tweaks to aligning finances and performance when he returned to the committee in August.
Maybe that’s all that could be said. But it means Mokonyane is not held to account as to how during her tenure at water and sanitation the fundamentals of sustainable water supplies have been washed away by mismanagement, even corruption, inefficiency and blame games. DM