Johannesburg - I trace my paternal ancestry to Qutsa, a sleepy village near Tsomo in the Eastern Cape. A little over 80 years ago my father and his brothers were herding cattle and engaged in fierce stick fighting contests on the hills that dot the rural landscape.
Part of their responsibilities would have been to take their livestock for a plunge dip in the nearby Tsomo River to treat ticks, flies, mites, lice and other external parasites.
The area now falls under the Chris Hani District Municipality and is typical of underdeveloped and impoverished rural South Africa. Five years ago tender notice number 29/2016/MD(TN) was floated to upgrade the Tsomo wastewater treatment works with a projected completion date of 2018. The R700m project followed government’s promise to bring water to desperate communities, which have suffered under a severe drought.
On a nationwide tour to familiarise himself with his department and ongoing projects, the freshly minted minister of Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, recently visited the area and declared the upgrade “99.9% complete!” – but for the building of a reservoir and placing a pipeline that will reticulate water to the biggest town in the region, Butterworth. The cost will be a further R230m and will not be completed for another three years.
Mchunu and his deputies Dikeleli Magadzi and David Mahlobo have their work cut out for them. The South African Human Rights Commission tells us that at least 3 000 schools across six provinces still have pit toilets – 515 of them in Limpopo alone; 253 have no water; 248 provide no sanitation at all; 37 out of 257 municipalities still use bucket toilets.
I interviewed Mchunu on 702 Breakfast this week and he admits there are capacity challenges in the department. Out of 8 000 workers fewer than 800 are engineers or have the necessary high-level technical skills to do the work required for the department to achieve its goals. His predecessor, Lindiwe Sisulu, made a bold commitment to me two years ago that the bucket system would be eradicated within six months but it remains.
Mchunu says that this has been an abject failure by government.
Aware that I was due to speak to the minister, a source suggested I ask him about the intervention of the SANDF to resolve the crisis in Emfuleni in the Vaal. Mchunu says he was shocked to discover that it appears there is no record of decision for the processing of the appointment of the military to intervene. He is also investigating a private contractor that he alleges deviated from a project plan at the cost of R76m to the taxpayer and simply walked away after the initial 12 month contract was not renewed.
And these are perhaps some of the milder examples of this type of problem. In Limpopo the Giyani bulk water project ballooned from R500m to moe than R3bn. It was meant to provide water for 55 villages and to date remains incomplete. The project came to a halt after allegations of corruption surfaced in 2018 and there is in an investigation currently under way by the Special Investigating Unit.
Former Finance minister Tito Mboweni described it as plagued by malfeasance and a “cesspool of corruption”. He decried “a complete disregard for supply chain rules to poor contract management, resulting in irregular expenditure”.
A department insider I spoke to diagnosed the problem privately as “the old story of chasing R10 and using R30 to do so whilst losing R100 in value!” He says replacing the original contractor has stalled for three years now for the simple reason that no firm is willing to take indemnity on another’s work on a project at that stage of completion. The cost of getting a new contractor to complete the job would also add at least another 40% escalation on what it would have cost to keep the old contractor. In the meantime, as the investigations into the original allegations conclude, the taps are still running dry. God only knows what has happened to the infrastructure and piping already in the ground lying unused for the last 4 years.
In an election year one would think that the governing party would be punished by voters, especially in a poll that is a measure of satisfaction about delivery at local level. Yet in Emfuleni, the Chris Hani District and the Mopani District of Limpopo the ANC maintains some of its strongest support of any municipality around the country.
How and when will voters rid themselves of the political ticks, flies, mites, lice and other internal parasites who feast on the state at their expense?