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Birds of a feather: SAA and Water Affairs Department fly too close to the sun


Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.

SAA and the Department of Water Affairs share the dubious honour of being annual report delinquents. At SAA, the consequences are that the airline is on the brink of having its wings clipped. And Water Affairs’ inability to get its administration in order raises questions about its effective stewardship of this precious resource.

On the surface, South African Airways (SAA) and the Department of Water and Sanitation don’t appear to have much in common. But they do, according to parliamentarians.

Both the flagship national carrier and the department have hidden behind a section in the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) to dodge submitting their annual reports to Parliament on time, as prescribed in legislation and regulations.

SAA and the department have become so adept at using section 65(2) of the PFMA that MPs are of the view something has to give. And rightly so. The adverse consequences of failing to adhere to a prescribed process speak for themselves at the national carrier, while the department is not trailing too far behind.

At least, that’s MPs’ assessment of the situation.

Legislators have also drawn parallels between the department and Eskom, saying Water Affairs cannot be allowed to spiral as had been the case for years with the power utility. Parliamentarians do recognise, however, that Eskom’s position is redeemable. But Water Affairs can ill-afford to mismanage the country’s water resources by way of bungling its administration.

The section of the PFMA in question partly reads that when: “… [An] executive authority fails to table… the annual report… in the relevant legislature within six months after the end of the financial year… [the] executive authority must table a written explanation in the legislature setting out the reasons why they were not tabled and the auditor-general may issue a special report on the delay.”

The intention underpinning these allowances is to ensure that when an entity or a government department encounters material difficulties during an audit process, these institutions are given a fair amount of time to get their affairs in order. However, intention does not determine outcomes.   

The airline has used and abused the section so much that MPs are having none of it anymore.

The Standing Committee on Public Accounts recently scoffed at SAA’s latest attempt to explain away the carrier’s failure to table its annual report.

When SAA cited section 65(2) of the PFMA and couched its inability to submit its annual report as a technical issue, the committee dismissed this outright. Instead, the committee is of the view that the airline and the department must be “reined in”.

By mid-March this year, Water Affairs was already seven months late in tabling its annual report. Its officials made an undertaking to committee members to fall in line with statutory requirements.      

The problem with these delays in submissions is that MPs are unable to exercise effective oversight on entities and departments without having access to credible and detailed information about the goings-on in these institutions.

Furthermore, the entire architecture of ensuring accountability is staked on principles including transparency. It is designed to foster and reinforce trust in public institutions.

But the situation at hand also demonstrates the shortcomings of the current accountability mechanisms. The system effectively promotes rules and a box-ticking approach without necessarily being proactive about inspiring good conduct.

By way of example, the department has an acting director-general and an acting CFO. MPs consider this a “breeding ground for instability”. The same assessment can be made about SAA when it comes to executive stability and continuity.

In a departmental context, acting appointees seldom rock the boat nor do they have much incentive to carry out their duties with rigour, fearing they might jeopardise their chances of being considered for these positions on a full-time basis. This, in turn, gives rise to administrative complacency. 

For years, Water Affairs has been synonymous with administrative inefficiencies and butted heads with the Office of the Auditor-General about its audit outcomes.

Hints of this were apparent in mid-March, when MPs probed deeper about why the department was unable to table its annual report within the stipulated framework.

The Office of the Auditor-General has entered the picture and reviewed both the department’s books and those of its entities.

Previously, the department had used private audit firms to review its entities. When that was the case, the audit firms used smaller samples to audit the entities’ figures.

Not so with the Office of the Auditor-General. A team from the Office of the Auditor-General cast the net wider and took a deep dive into the entities’ books.

This resulted in a back and forth between the Office of the Auditor-General and the department. With reference to the department’s entities, the Office of the Auditor-General is of the view that they could do a far better job of keeping track of the money being spent on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.

Simply put, the Office of the Auditor-General wants officials to “follow the money”. In an increasingly constrained fiscal environment, this not only rings true – it is also an imperative.

SAA should serve as an object lesson to other entities and departments that think they can ride roughshod on prescribed processes. They, too, will eventually paint themselves into corners they can’t get out of, and the fiscus won’t save them. BM 


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