Defend Truth


Access to water in Makana: How an incapable state destroys service delivery


Philip Machanick is an emeritus associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University and a long-time climate and social activist.

In 1994, the ANC understandably wanted to remove apartheid hacks from the public service. This is a tricky balance: lose the old guard and you lose their experience. Keep the old guard and you don’t transform to the new reality. You’d think nearly 30 years on, this problem would be past us.

Recently, I saw an ANC person in KZN quoted as saying “the others keep talking about clean audits. We, the ANC, are the only ones who talk about water, sewerage and jobs, which is what people are interested in.”

That’s a neat spin.

Transform the self-created problem from your failure into your solution.

This is the gift that keeps on giving. If voters believe you are the one to solve a problem you created yourself, you can carry on creating such problems.

This mindset is taking us to a point where an incapable state makes debates about ideology and policy increasingly irrelevant.

Fix the land problem? Outsource or insource? Capitalist or socialist approach to health care for the poor? None of these questions matter if the state is broken.

I focus on one issue though there are others: public service reform.

A problem in our public service is a lack of permanent leadership. Whether at director-general level in higher arms of government or city or municipal manager level in local government, the top position is generally a five-year contract and is a political appointee.

There are several problems with this approach. It leads to a revolving door between these top jobs, other similar ones elsewhere, political positions and the private sector. This allows conflicts of interest to accumulate, those in these positions lack the deep institutional memory to manage effectively and they move on before consequences of incompetence or corruption catch up with them.

Another big problem is lack of mentorship. 

In 1994, the ANC understandably wanted to remove apartheid hacks from the public service. This is a tricky balance: lose the old guard and you lose their experience. Keep the old guard and you don’t transform to the new reality. You’d think nearly 30 years on, this problem would be past us. But no: the revolving door at the top and rapid recycling of senior managers, even those who are supposed to be permanent appointments, perpetuates the problem. Add to this, cronyism as well as corruption of tenders and supply chains. We have an increasingly incapable state.

Solution? Make top positions permanent but make incumbents accountable. Go after them for wrongdoing or incompetence as soon as it emerges and ensure that they are not employed in positions of similar responsibility again. Consequences should include the full weight of the law when there is wrongdoing and accountability for financial loss. Such positions should only be open to people who hold no office in a political party.

Once you have the right people at the top, with assured permanency unless they fail or are corrupt, they can start working on ensuring competence and eradicating cronyism further down the organogram.

Permanence at the top and disallowing holding political office would not in itself solve all of these problems but it would add weight to accountability. Accountability is not taken seriously at present: those known to be corrupt and incompetent are not pursued while those trying to put a stop to malfeasance become unemployable.

What went wrong in Makana

In a classic case of how it all goes wrong, Mandisi Planga, then director of community services in Makana municipality, became acting municipal manager in the wake of accusations against MM Pravin Naidoo. In January 2014, Planga ordered a forensic audit by the municipality’s internal audit service provider, Kabuso.

The municipality attempted to cover up the resulting damning report that was completed a year later, but made it public after it was leaked.

This same Pravin Naidoo was previously behind driving Lungile Mxube, then director of corporate affairs in Makana, out of the municipality for exposing corruption.

Despite compelling evidence of wrongdoing in the Kabuso Report, no one has been charged let alone convicted. Planga, despite being eminently qualified, struggles to get employment wherever the ANC has a say. Meanwhile, former Makana water and sanitation manager Gubevu Maduna has decamped to the neighbouring Ndlambe municipality, with no consequences whatsoever for his disastrous performance in Makana.

The consequences of incapable government at municipal level

At national level, we can see it in the failures of Eskom, SAA, the Post Office and other state owned entities. At the provincial level, we see it in dysfunctional health and education services. The rot that has set into the government has destroyed capacity in all of these areas and more.

The most obvious rot visible to most is at municipal level where service failures are seen on a daily basis.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Corruption in Makana behind water, sanitation crisis killing our town 

Again taking Makana as an example: we have two water treatment works. One, Waainek, relies on local dams. The other, James Kleynhans, receives raw water from a national scheme. Whenever there is a drought and Waainek water supply is threatened, money is thrown at James Kleynhans and the project is allowed to fail silently once the drought breaks. 

This caught up with the government in 2019, when the drought didn’t break. A project to double the capacity of James Kleynhans that was scheduled to finish in 2017 was delayed to late 2018 and finally failed for lack of progress. In 2019, the community was assured that the project would be fast-tracked. We are now more than halfway through 2023 and the project is yet to be completed after numerous broken promises, the main contractor going insolvent and other failures unrelated to the upgrade.

Public announcements of expenditure on James Kleynhans going back to 2010 add up to R770-million, with R50-million initially budgeted to double its capacity. Government denies that it is such a large figure, but they only look at the cost of the current project, which has ballooned to R393-million, according to the latest Minister of Water and Sanitation budget speech.

What went wrong?

While the upgrade is managed by an external agency, Amatola Water Board, the choice of the contractor does not include the ability to complete. If the municipality had a competent infrastructure team, even though they don’t manage the contract, they would pick up problems early. Instead, they add to the problems by incompetent management of existing infrastructure.

The main point, though, is not specific instances, but that capable government is necessary to turn all this around. Whether we are looking at delivery capacity of the state or attracting private sector investment, nothing is going to work if essential infrastructure fails.

Investment strike? Definitely. Office space is being built on a large scale between Tshwane and Johannesburg. Why? Pension funds must invest somewhere and low-risk options are drying up. An office building that stands empty for five years eventually produces a return. A factory that fails with no prospect of success is a pure loss. The direct consequences? A stagnating economy. Unemployment spiralling out of control.

The DA makes a big thing of clean audits and this is a good starting point. But there is a lot more to capable government than that. You need accountability, commitment to perform, institutional memory, professional detachment and effective consequence management. Until we turn around the culture of cronyism, protecting incompetence and corruption – while punishing honesty and competence – it doesn’t matter what policy or ideology a governing party has.

Maybe the ANC is talking about water, sanitation and jobs. But it is also destroying all of the above. It is time to try something different. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • James Harrison says:

    All this is now old news and known to anyone who has been paying attention. What really concerns me is the fact that, despite the problems being known and defined, nothing serious is done. What does that say about the leaders and office-holders in our society? To me it suggests moral turpitude and a cynical abandonment of social responsibility in favour of personal gain. What, pray tell, is the answer to that problem?

  • Bill Haslam says:

    We are about to get a real opportunity to change things – the election in 2024. This is your opportunity, so go out and vote. Vote for any party other than ANC and its acolytes, including the EFF. But there is more that you can do – encourage others to vote in the same way, especially those who have not registered or regard voting as a waste of time. And yet, even more…work for the party of your choice; donate money to that party. It is time for us to stop complaining and do what must be done.

  • Denise Smit says:

    The revolving door issue will stop when the state and an municipal services staff up to the very top is apolitical. If you work for the state or municipalities you are working for the citizens and not for a party and your objectives is to deliver services. Only then can employment be made optimally and service delivery followed through. There is already enough in the regulations and policy to supposedly hold people accountable the way you describe. It is the political will and follow through that is absent because of politicking and protection of cronies. Denise Smit

  • warburton.chantelle says:

    Please, please, please, would more people investigate and report on all the municipalities that have failed residents of the right to access safe potable water. My parents have gone as long as 52 days without water in the Ugu Municipality (South Coast, KZN). The tourism industry – and the lives of ordinary citizens – can’t continue with this malfeasance. It’s devastating the society and its economy.

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