AGE OF ACCOUNTABILITY
Hawks arrest OR Tambo municipal officials over millions paid for unfinished and unbuilt dams
Uncovering a shocking corruption scheme that left hundreds of villagers dependent on rivers for water as reservoirs and dams were left unfinished or unbuilt, the Hawks on Monday arrested two officials from the OR Tambo Municipality. One is the municipality’s director of water and sanitation.
In 2019, the OR Tambo Municipality awarded tenders for the construction of three dams to provide hundreds of villagers around Port St Johns with clean, potable water. The project cost R160-million and was partially funded by Covid-19 funds as access to water became even more crucial during the pandemic.
In 2022, Daily Maverick flagged the issue of the hardfill dam near Ntsonyini that was meant to provide water to 40 villages in the deep rural Eastern Cape.
The Ntsonyini off-channel dam was meant to be South Africa’s first hardfill dam, with a design lauded in several engineering publications. However, it was never completed.
The Ntsonyini project, which began in February 2019, was not only beset by corruption, but also by protests and violence that broke out over work on the project. The Auditor-General also raised questions about the dam.
The OR Tambo Municipality, which was in charge of the project, has since been placed under administration.
Currently, communities around Ntsonyini and Ngqongweni, near Port St Johns on the Wild Coast, get their drinking water from the Mngazana River, the uMzimvubu River and local streams.
In 2022, the Eastern Cape MEC for cooperative governance and traditional affairs, Xolile Nqatha, reported to the provincial legislature that the OR Tambo Municipality had said a new “variation order” (indicating an increase in construction costs of up to 20%) had to be generated due to extended excavation needed to reach a suitable level for the dam wall.
The original cost of the project was R200-million and R136-million had been spent so far.
Another R238-million was reportedly needed for the project to be completed.
Nqatha, now the MEC for Transport and Community Safety, said the additional R238-million exceeded the permissible 20% for a variation order. This led to the project grinding to a halt.
Qokolweni Water Supply Scheme
Another major water project commissioned and managed by the OR Tambo District Municipality, the Qokolweni Water Supply Scheme – despite being reported as completed – has left communities without water after it was discovered that there had been no feasibility study to confirm whether there was water in the area before work on the project began. The Auditor-General also flagged this project.
In 2022, a spokesperson for the OR Tambo Municipality, Zimkhita Macingwana, said the contractor had not abandoned the site, but had left after National Treasury withheld funding. She said it was not the municipality that was trying to cancel the contract.
A local shop owner temporarily halted construction by obtaining an interdict because his premises had been damaged during blasting.
“Due to time lapsed and the issue with the interdict, which prevented the contractor from performing, the contractor terminated the contract,” explained Macingwana.
“The municipality plans to complete the work. Engineers and contractors are busy finalising the new measurements and after that, a new tender will be issued,” she added.
In 202o, in a written response to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance, former OR Tambo chief financial officer, Moabi Moleko, explained how his own investigation found that the water and sanitation department had a “prepaid” scheme that paid contractors for work never done.
He said he had submitted an affidavit to the Hawks and also visited the incomplete projects with them. Moleko left the municipality in 2022.
On Monday, 31 July, Macingwana confirmed that two municipal employees had been arrested.
“The details are still scanty, and we will update the public as things unfold. In line with the principles of good governance, transparency and accountability, the OR Tambo District Municipality supports any efforts to root out corruption in our quest to instil good governance.
“The municipality will allow the law enforcement agencies to play their role, while it will respect the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa in treating the employees as not guilty until proven otherwise by the necessary authorities.”
On Monday, Andile Wiseman Vellem (58), OR Tambo Municipality’s director of water and sanitation, and Mawethu Mthengwana (51), a municipal project manager, appeared in the Mthatha Specialised Commercial Crimes Court on charges of fraud, corruption, contravention of the Municipal Finance Management Act and contraventions of the Prevention of Organised Crime Act.
“Their co-accused is still at large while another was reported to have died in 2021,” Hawks spokesperson Yolisa Mgolodela said.
She confirmed the two municipal officials had been released on R10,000 bail each and the matter had been set down for 29 August to join more accused.
“More arrests will follow,” she added.
She said the allegations were that the accused irregularly awarded the dam tenders and provided loans to contractors for work not done. She said one of the dams was half-finished and the others were never built. DM