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The ugly truth about how the ‘War on Leaks’ project became a looting ‘scam’


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.

Six years and some odd findings in the making, the War on Leaks project has been short on outcomes and rich in shortcomings. Its deficiencies have been so severe that the current administration at the Department of Water and Sanitation has been left wondering how even the basics could have been missed. The War on Leaks is one of many projects that have rendered the Department of Water and Sanitation a site of rampant maladministration.

In the winter of 2015 and on the cusp of spring, a new youth job-creation scheme came about. The government would embark on a so-called War on Leaks. As part of the five-year project, 15,000 unemployed youngsters would be trained as plumbers, water agents and artisans.

In the first phase, 3,000 trainees would be taken on board during the 2015/16 financial year. In the second and third phases, 5,000 and 7,000 jobless youngsters would be trained in 2016/17 and 2017/18, respectively.

The project was unveiled on 28 August 2015 in Gqeberha as an initiative of the Presidency that would be implemented by the Department of Water and Sanitation. The Gqeberha announcement was filled with the usual fanfare that was characteristic of the time.

The then Nelson Mandela Bay Metro mayor, Eastern Cape premier, the President, some Cabinet ministers and, of course, unemployed youth were at the event.

“South Africa is a water-scarce country,” we were told. “Leaks cost the country R7-billion annually,” continued the project champions. At the time, the country was in the grip of its worst drought in 30 years and experienced its driest year on record in 2015. That certainly added some degree of credence and relevance to the War on Leaks project.

However, time would show that the project was an elaborate looting scheme symptomatic of the administrative deficiencies that plagued the department between 2012 and 2019 – and continue to do so amid an internal effort to address maladministration.

The current ministry and departmental administration concede that “[the] … corruption in the department during the 2012 to 2019 period was really a scam”.

Some six years and three months after it was announced, the War on Leaks has emerged as a prime candidate for “the ugliest of findings” for a Department of Water and Sanitation project.

Furthermore, the initiative is a case in point of a project undertaken without appropriate cost structures being put in place, “commitments made without confirmed funding, [and] intended purposes not [being] met, with direct and indirect impact on service delivery”.      

Although the Department of Water and Sanitation notes that the project “was not a bad idea at all”, it fell short on implementation. The implementation of the project had been “done incorrectly from the start”.

The department has subsequently closed the funding taps on the War on Leaks and discontinued the scheme as a standalone project. “Rather, [it has] been integrated into the work of municipalities in the infrastructure drive.”

The thinking within the department now is that water leaks cannot be treated as a specialised, standalone issue without context. Admittedly, leaks could be linked to, among others, decaying infrastructure and related problems.

The project was so problematic that it flouted every internal procedure imaginable, including the “legal framework”. The project’s administration was so leaky that it had current Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu wondering aloud to lawmakers “how such basic procedures could have been missed”.

The War on Leaks’ legacy is one of unauthorised expenditure that still haunts the department. But the project is one of many such examples within the department, whose administration was deliberately stymied by not making permanent senior appointments, including a director-general and a CFO.   

For most of its existence, the department operated without an accounting officer and a CFO. This created an accountability gap that rendered the department vulnerable to the kind of excesses that are being rectified by its present administration.

The depth of the corruption within the department has resulted in the minister likening it to a “police station” because of the sheer volume of cases involving officials and staff being referred for investigation to law enforcement authorities and related agencies.

Mchunu and acting director-general Frans Moatshe appeared before the Portfolio Committee on Water and Sanitation on 8 March. Moatshe’s presentation on investigations and disciplinary matters at the department is available online.

There is no word on the actual number of jobs created by, or the number of youth who benefited from, the War on Leaks project. Instead, the record reflects hundreds of millions in expenditure that went down the drain – contrary to the initial lofty objectives. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    A normal outcome for a typical ANC cadre looting festival…as usual no accountability.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    The official body for Plumbing, IOPSA, and its official Journal, Plumbing Africa, offered to assist, at no charge, in terms of an official training structure and emphasised that these young people must be correctly tooled (there would eb a cost for tools, to repair leaks. they would then be part of the start of a QCTO career path toward a qualified plumber. This was rejected as being too expensive – work that one out!

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