DM168 stories pressure Water Ministry to open up on investigations into graft by staff
Minister Senzo Mchunu and his top brass explain department disciplinary processes in detail – and answer some questions they’d been dodging.
Under pressure from DM168, the Department of Water and Sanitation has finally provided details of investigation processes involving officials who are accused of misconduct.
The details were shared at an extraordinary Department of Water and Sanitation parliamentary portfolio committee meeting, held via Zoom on Thursday, 12 May, focusing on DM168’s two recent stories on the subject – published on 9 April and 30 April.
According to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, the meeting was attended by 98 people, including 12 committee members and their support staff, relevant NGOs and other interested parties. A committee insider said the average attendance at such meetings is usually 45.
Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu, briefing committee members, claimed allegations in the articles were “misinformed, misleading and provide an inaccurate description of the roles and responsibilities of the disciplinary advisory committee (DAC) appointed by the former minister (Lindiwe Sisulu), where it obtained its information from, and what has occurred with the investigations since the term of the disciplinary advisory committee came to an end with the term of the former minister”.
Mchunu and his department were sent detailed questions about the status of certain departmental investigations before the first article was published, and again prior to the second, but chose not to answer fully at the time.
However, in the Thursday-night presentation, the minister and department director-general Sean Phillips gave answers to most of the questions, and even went beyond that to provide information about the history and status of current investigations, the cost of the DAC, its role and terms of reference, the nature of disciplinary cases provided to the DAC and the departmental handover between Sisulu and Mchunu.
DA MP and former deputy water and sanitation portfolio committee member Emma Powell said wide circulation of DM168 stories “among water industry leaders and politicians” prompted this “extraordinary meeting of the parliamentary committee to allow officials time and space to finally shine light on what action has been taken to deal with decades of corruption in the department”.
Speaking as manager of WaterCAN, an OUTA initiative, Dr Ferrial Adams said she found the briefing useful. “We know the department has been in a total mess for years. And while it still looks quite bad, there seems to be an approach to clean it up. We would like to see more people facing criminal charges and not just allowed to resign or be dismissed after investigations.”
Powell added: “Minister Mchunu must be complimented on his willingness to account so openly and so speedily.”
The issues raised
In DM168’s first story, on 9 April, a whistle-blower told us more than R36-million had been spent on investigating corrupt officials before the DAC was closed down.
At Thursday’s meeting, director-general Phillips unequivocally said this was not true: “The R36-million referred to in the Daily Maverick articles appears to refer to the cost of all the advisory committees appointed by the former minister for the 2020-21 financial year, including the Water Advisory Committee, the Water Services Committee and National Rapid Response Task Team.”
The whistle-blower also alleged no action had been taken against about 65 top Water and Sanitation officials accused of misdemeanours. On 9 April, we reported the following: “The whistle-blower says that, in disbanding the disciplinary committee, Mchunu and the department have chosen to ignore the investigation into his corruption-riddled department.”
What’s in a number?
On 30 April, we reported that “the whistle-blower, who provided access to the Watergate file comprising leaked documents from a Department of Water and Sanitation investigation into about 65 of its own top brass, has revealed the lengths to which some department heads went to cover up a litany of wrongful, negligent and possibly criminal acts against South Africa’s citizens”.
Phillips said the department disagreed with the number “about 65”, asserting rather that the number of officials being investigated was “63”, with the majority “not ‘top’ but under senior management level”. He said there was no lack of action as the majority of cases had been finalised.
In the first article, the whistle-blower implied that it was highly suspect for Mchunu to shut down the disciplinary committee.
“Within a week,” said a department insider, “her [Sisulu’s] replacement, incumbent Department of Water and Sanitation Minister [Mchunu], came in and closed down the disciplinary committee and its work” – which had opened a can of worms by investigating and identifying top officials “negligent or having acted in a manner that gave cause to corrupt”.
The department responded by saying these allegations were misinformed and misleading and provided an inaccurate description of the roles and responsibilities of the disciplinary advisory committee appointed by the former minister, where it got its information, and what had occurred with investigations since the term of the DAC came to an end when Sisulu left.
In the 9 April story we said there had been a “verbal” handover from Sisulu to Mchunu.
Virtual or verbal?
Mchunu told DM168 that there was no formal handover between himself and Sisulu when he took occupation of her office.
“It was verbal,” said the minister, referring to the handover of an entire ministry and its affairs, a process that those familiar with public administration say should take about six months.
This week, the minister said the procedure had been “virtual”.
DM168 will carefully go through every statement that has been made as well as the proceedings of the extraordinary committee meeting and will respond in full on Daily Maverick online this week. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.