Minister Gugile Nkwinti inherited what he described as a bankrupt and dysfunctional department, with the worst audit outcomes in government. For years, the department had failed to do its basic job of maintaining and developing major water infrastructure – a failure acutely felt during the Western Cape’s extreme drought.
Much of the rot was the result of the previous minister’s alleged maladministration, including attempts to swing multibillion-rand tenders to preferred contractors, in return for donations to the ANC (among other favours).
We welcomed the appointment of Minister Nkwinti in this crucial post, because of our experience working with him in his previous capacity as Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform. This is certainly no model department, and its failures on the land reform front are legendary. But, in defence of Minister Nkwinti, I can say he was the only political leader I have experienced in that portfolio who sought to break the vice-grip of the gate-keeping political tenderpreneurs bedevilling the long-delayed restitution process in District Six.
So how would he fare in the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation? That would be the big test.
During the past 10 days, I had a glimpse, from the inside, into the enormity of the challenge he faces.
The tip of the iceberg emerged on 4 October when my office received an invitation from the department, giving us just one working day’s notice to attend the sod-turning ceremony for the relaunch of the Western Cape’s biggest water infrastructure project – raising the Clanwilliam dam wall by 13.5 meters to double the dam’s holding capacity and irrigate 6,000 additional hectares of farmland. This water is particularly needed by emerging farmers in an area whose economy is 80% dependent on agriculture.
It was a big moment. Just nine months previously, the minister’s predecessor had told us that this priority project, promised over a decade ago, had been taken “off the table” because of a lack of funds.
It was a devastating blow at the worst possible time. Back then, Day Zero seemed unavoidable and the Clanwilliam dam had dropped to just 6% of capacity. Today it is overflowing. If the original deadlines had been met, the project would have been completed by now and we would be able to store, rather than lose, that precious water.
But, better late than never. Now we would have to gear ourselves for the next round of problems.
From years of experience, I have learnt that the bigger the investment in a poor community, the more intense the conflict over access to resources, and the fiercer the battle among local politicians to control the disbursement of the spoils.
Announcements of “major investments” also tend to happen in the run-up to elections. A huge sod-turning event is organised, and people are bused in from the surrounding region, regaled with highly partisan speeches (which turn a government event into an ANC rally), followed by a free meal and a ride back home.
All too often, that is the last the community hears about the project for many years.
I have, in the past, been very vocal about this abuse of state resources for electioneering, which (I suspect) is one of the reasons my invitations either get lost in the post, or arrive at the very last minute, when it tends to be too difficult for me to re-arrange my diary.
This time, however, because of the issues at stake, it was essential to go, and my office duly juggled my programme.
Before the event began on the morning of Monday 8 October, I learnt from an irate DA Mayor of Cederberg, William Farmer (in whose jurisdiction the dam falls), about the alleged political patronage involved in the launch preparation.
According to Mayor Farmer, an official of the Department of Water and Sanitation, a Mr Rala, had approached a group of Councillors on 5 October as they were busy preparing for the launch. Noticing the ANC’s chief whip in the group, Mr Rala clearly assumed it was a group of ANC Councillors, and announced that the department wanted a list of “ANC comrades” who needed jobs and contracts on the project.
When the Mayor confronted him, Mr Rala apologised profusely, but his game was up.
After this contretemps, it seemed the issue had been resolved. The preparations were back on track, following due process in the proper way.
But on the night of 7 October, Mayor Farmer learnt that the procedures had again been breached. The transport contract had been swung to Mr Danville Smith, the ANC’s regional treasurer, who was also awarded a hefty slice of the catering contract (for 700 people). The remainder of the catering contract (for 1,800 people) went to Ms Elize Filand (an ANC activist who was previously awarded a lucrative three-ton crayfish contract).
Fury erupted in the municipality. The conflict over political patronage had started before the first sod was turned, and I was interested to see how the minister would deal with it.
The day’s proceedings began with the usual “technical briefing”, where the engineers and project managers explain to the “political principals” (the minister, premier and local mayors) what the project entails, how it will unfold against time lines, and what the day’s events involve.
So it was a surprise to see so many ANC members, in party regalia, at the briefing, including Mr Jonas White, the disgraced former ANC mayor of Cederberg, who is supposed to be under “correctional supervision” after being given a suspended three-year sentence for fraudulently attempting to rig tenders in the municipality. He has repeatedly violated the terms of his sentence – to the extent of allegedly getting into physical confrontations with policemen while under the influence of alcohol.
When question time arrived, Councillor Billy Claassen, wearing his ANC T-shirt, spoke up: He wanted to know which “communities” would benefit from the contract. I knew exactly what he was getting at. So I took a speaking turn, to set out unambiguously that we should work together to ensure contracts were awarded on the basis of open, fair procedures.
Mayor Farmer then reported to the meeting the extent of the manipulation of the catering and transport contracts, and insisted that mechanisms be put in place to prevent this in future.
To his great credit, Minister Nkwinti announced there and then that he would establish a multi-party committee to oversee the project to ensure that proper, transparent procurement processes were followed. The ANC team tried to challenge the ruling, but Minister Nkwinti refused to budge. That took great courage in the context.
The minister also took pre-emptive steps to prevent the launch event from turning into an ANC election rally by insisting that speakers from the community representing different perspectives should speak at the launch event.
The political atmosphere became tense. The anger directed at the minister by his ANC cadres was palpable. Shortly afterwards they confronted Mayor Farmer, who had exposed the extent of the manipulation of tenders that preceded the event, shoving and jostling him to demonstrate their anger.
In response to this action, the Cederberg municipality withdrew from the launch.
But I decided I needed to attend, if only to monitor what went on.
The event took place in a giant marquee, with an estimated 2,000 people, bused in from the West Coast region.
Contrary to the minister’s express instructions, the two “community members” who spoke on the programme turned out to be highly partisan former ANC councillors, clearly hoping the project would improve the ANC’s fortunes along the West Coast (following the party’s defeat in the 2016 elections).
The first “community member” was a former Councillor de Vries of Matzikama, who was pleased the project had resumed, but wanted to know how “the community” would benefit. He then turned to the minister, announcing that he himself was registering a business and trusted that he would get contracts on the project.
He then went on to urge the minister to expedite expropriation of the farms downstream of the dam, so that “our people” could benefit. The applause made me wonder how many of the 2,000-plus people present expected to be among the lucky recipients of free farms. I also wondered how many had considered a possible answer to COPE leader, Terror Lekota’s, key question: How would the ANC decide who would get what farm?
Next speaker was ex-Councillor Xhomo from Matzikama who was even more forthright. He was fulsome in his praise for the ANC, saying the project would help the party’s efforts to win the crucial by-election in Ward 4.
He was delighted the Department of Water and Sanitation had come to Cederberg with the news that prospective job seekers and tenderers would be able to by-pass the procurement processes of the DA municipality. He openly explained to the crowd how officials from the Department of Water and Sanitation had arrived in the area to collect CVs of people who should benefit from the project – a confession that unwittingly substantiated Mayor Farmer’s version of the political patronage involved.
I watched Minister Nkwinti’s body language. He was clearly extremely uncomfortable.
My speaking turn came next. After welcoming the project, I did my best to explain how patronage systems are at the heart of the failed state in Africa. We could not sit back and allow this to happen in the Western Cape. I welcomed the fact that the minister had committed himself to appointing a multi-party committee to oversee the project, and ensure open and fair processes. I also stressed it was essential to separate a government event from a political rally.
Against my expectations, only a small section of the crowd booed. The rest applauded. The support for the partisan “community members” was not as strong as I had anticipated.
Then came the minister’s turn. He did not buckle, re-emphasised the need for an oversight committee and added that it was important to put South Africa’s interests above any political party. Without mincing his words, he said if he had to choose between his party, and South Africa, he would choose South Africa.
It was a powerful and brave statement in that context.
Of course, none of these underlying dynamics were reflected in the media coverage, which was full of smiling, sod-turning photos and sound bites.
Within days I was hearing about the pushback from West Coast ANC cadres against the national minister, who they pejoratively labelled a “boere-boetie” – in the ANC’s habitual way of delegitimising alternative perspectives.
The minister will require a backbone of steel to remain resolute under the pressure he will face from his own ranks in the execution of this mammoth project.
Minister Nkwinti will only survive in this post if President Cyril Ramaphosa backs him. And that will depend on the tensile strength of the President’s own spine. The big question for both of them is: can the ANC’s political leaders survive in office if they try to dismantle the patronage network that holds the party together?
The future of our democracy depends on each individual minister holding the line against corruption – and the President’s willingness to back them. Given the history of many serving Cabinet ministers in this regard, we dare not be over-optimistic. DM
"The past is always tense; the future perfect." ~ Zadie Smith