Wa­ter short­ages a prime ex­am­ple of state cap­ture

CityPress - - Voices - Mike Muller voices@city­press.co.za

Alot of what is be­ing pre­sented as rad­i­cal eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion ini­tia­tives in South Africa is sim­ply state cap­ture by a cor­rupt elite. The wa­ter sec­tor is a prac­ti­cal ex­am­ple of this and shows that con­se­quences will be dire if the sit­u­a­tion is not ad­dressed.

Min­is­ter of Wa­ter Af­fairs and San­i­ta­tion Nomvula Mokonyane stands at the cen­tre of the un­fold­ing tragedy. Bil­lions of rands are at stake in a story which threat­ens the lives and liveli­hoods of all wa­ter users.

So, are the con­tro­ver­sial ac­tiv­i­ties of some po­lit­i­cal lead­ers en­sur­ing that wa­ter comes out of the taps in ru­ral vil­lages? Have their de­ci­sions con­trib­uted to the se­cu­rity of the wa­ter sup­plies re­quired to keep in­dus­tries work­ing and the coun­try’s econ­omy grow­ing? Is the coun­try mak­ing the right in­vest­ments in its wa­ter fu­ture? Is there value for money? Is the right in­fra­struc­ture be­ing built, in the right place, and is it be­ing built prop­erly?

At a ba­sic level, the num­ber of peo­ple whose taps no longer pro­vide a re­li­able wa­ter sup­ply grew by al­most 2 mil­lion be­tween 2011 and 2015. This is a prob­lem, par­tic­u­larly in ru­ral ar­eas, but it is spread­ing to ur­ban ar­eas as well.

In Man­gaung, one of South Africa’s eight met­ros, 70% of peo­ple ques­tioned re­ported wa­ter cuts that lasted more than two days in 2015. In most cases, it has been shown that the prob­lem is bad man­age­ment, not a short­age of wa­ter.

At the other end of the scale, the pic­ture is no bet­ter. Ex­pan­sion of the big­gest and most im­por­tant wa­ter sup­ply scheme in the coun­try, the Vaal River Sys­tem, is more than five years over­due.

De­struc­tive po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion

The ef­fec­tive func­tion­ing of the Vaal sys­tem un­der­pins a large part of South Africa’s econ­omy and about 35% of the pop­u­la­tion. Its fail­ure would have dis­as­trous con­se­quences for lives and liveli­hoods, and ev­ery year’s de­lay costs at least R500 mil­lion.

The main rea­son for the lat­est de­lay is that Mokonyane has spent two years chang­ing the rules and gov­er­nance of the project. Her stated rea­sons for do­ing so in­clude that the changes were part of govern­ment’s eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion agenda to en­sure that a broader ar­ray of com­pa­nies could com­pete for con­tracts.

To push through this po­si­tion, Mokonyane fired Dr Zodwa Dlamini, South Africa’s chief del­e­gate in charge of a daily project over­sight in Le­sotho. She re­placed Dlamini with a lawyer with no en­gi­neer­ing or wa­ter knowl­edge.

Then she can­celled a ten­der that had been closed, af­ter re­port­edly meet­ing with of­fi­cials of the com­pany that was ex­cluded be­cause it did not have the re­quired ex­per­tise.

More scan­dals

In be­tween the town­ship tap and the big dams of Le­sotho, there are many more sad sto­ries. News­pa­per re­ports tell of huge con­tracts given to po­lit­i­cal friends – R4 bil­lion in Lim­popo alone. There are many ques­tion marks over their per­for­mance, and Lim­popo re­mains one of the worst-per­form­ing prov­inces with 60% of its house­holds suf­fer­ing long in­ter­rup­tions in sup­ply in 2015.

In Oc­to­ber, Mokonyane’s de­part­ment took out full-page ad­ver­tise­ments, boast­ing that Au­di­tor-Gen­eral Kimi Mak­wetu had given them a “clean au­dit”.

How­ever, in Novem­ber, Mak­wetu high­lighted the de­part­ment as one of the worst of­fend­ers for hav­ing in­curred bil­lions of rands in ir­reg­u­lar ex­pen­di­ture.

Mokonyane blamed the ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties on the drought, de­spite the fact that they oc­curred af­ter three years of nor­mal to above-av­er­age rain­fall in the province con­cerned.

Mean­while, state of­fi­cials and wa­ter pro­fes­sion­als have been hor­ri­fied to learn that in the Free State, the min­is­ter and mayor of Man­gaung are push­ing ahead with pro­pos­als to build a R2 bil­lion pipe­line to bring more wa­ter to the city from Gariep Dam on the Or­ange River.

Tech­ni­cal stud­ies con­ducted by Mokonyane’s de­part­ment show that this is three times more ex­pen­sive than other al­ter­na­tives, which could meet the city’s needs for the next 20 years. If this project goes ahead, it will re­duce funds for wa­ter pro­vi­sion in the province by more than R1 bil­lion.

Rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion

Mokonyane has jus­ti­fied her ac­tions on the grounds that she is pro­mot­ing rad­i­cal eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion. But what does that mean, and is it true?

In 2015, the han­dover re­port of the first Na­tional Plan­ning Com­mis­sion said rad­i­cal change was nec­es­sary to end poverty and in­equal­ity, and en­sure a pros­per­ous South Africa. The com­mis­sion spoke of the need to move away from nar­row poli­cies of black eco­nomic em­pow­er­ment, which ben­e­fited only a few peo­ple, to more broad-based ap­proaches.

The shift em­pha­sised sup­port­ing peo­ple en­gaged in pro­duc­tive ac­tiv­i­ties rather than just mid­dle­men. It pointed out that new eco­nomic tools would be needed to achieve this. Con­ven­tional eco­nomic poli­cies would need to be in­ter­ro­gated, while sup­port in the form of long-term, low­in­come loans would need to be pro­vided. It is im­por­tant to con­sider de­ci­sions that are be­ing taken to­day and to ask whether they are mov­ing the coun­try in this di­rec­tion. My con­tention is that, based on what is hap­pen­ing in the wa­ter sec­tor, they are not. When com­pa­nies with­out ca­pa­bil­i­ties are ap­pointed to do jobs, they have a choice. They can ap­point oth­ers to do the work for them – the tra­di­tional mid­dle­man ap­proach. Or, they will try to do the job them­selves, re­sult­ing in de­lays and cost over­runs. Take a large project like the Poli­hali dam and tun­nels for Le­sotho High­lands Phase 2. This is no small job. The Poli­hali dam will be 169 me­tres high, al­most as tall as one of Jo­han­nes­burg’s tallest build­ings, Ponte City. The tun­nel, big enough for a dou­ble-decker bus to be driven through it, will be more than 30km long. So, choos­ing in­ex­pe­ri­enced con­trac­tors could re­sult in dis­as­trous de­lays and cost over­runs. If de­ci­sions taken in the name of rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion put the wa­ter sup­plies to ma­jor cen­tres at risk of in­ter­rup­tion, eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity will stag­nate or move else­where. With it will go the jobs and op­por­tu­ni­ties to en­gage more peo­ple in the econ­omy. Al­ready, many South African cor­po­ra­tions are wor­ry­ing about the wa­ter se­cu­rity of their op­er­a­tions in places such as Gaut­eng.

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Play­ing into the pock­ets of the elite

When money is wasted, there will sim­ply be less avail­able to pro­vide ser­vices to those who do not yet have them. This, in turn, will re­duce de­mand for the ba­sic goods and ser­vices in house build­ing and con­struc­tion that should be part of any rad­i­cal eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion.

Mokonyane faces mount­ing crit­i­cism for her han­dling of wa­ter mat­ters. Her de­part­ment has re­port­edly been the sub­ject of in­ves­ti­ga­tions by the Pub­lic Pro­tec­tor and the po­lice’s spe­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tions unit.

In re­sponse, she has ap­pointed her own task team, led by a lawyer, to in­ves­ti­gate. Whether its work will be in­de­pen­dent is highly ques­tion­able.

Thus, it is clear that shenani­gans in the wa­ter sec­tor have lit­tle to do with rad­i­cal eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion and a lot to do with the con­tin­ued en­rich­ment of a new elite.

Muller is vis­it­ing ad­junct pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand

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