Pub­lic Works: small so­lu­tions for big prob­lems

Weekend Witness - - Opinion - With WIL­LIAM SAUN­DER­SON-MEYER

THE rash­est African National Congress elec­toral prom­ise in 1994 was “jobs for all”. Two decades later, it must be clear, even to dreamy ide­o­logues, that the state cre­ation of em­ploy­ment is a fraught and chal­leng­ing task.

Key to any mass job cre­ation — as op­posed to the po­lit­i­cal crony­ism and nepo­tism that drives the growth of white-col­lar pub­lic ser­vice work — is the Pub­lic Works Depart­ment. It pre­sides over in­fras­truc­tural de­vel­op­ment on a po­ten­tially mas­sive scale.

Un­for­tu­nately, Pub­lic Works has been rot­ten to the core — cor­rupt, in­com­pe­tent, waste­ful and lack­ing the man­age­rial depth to ex­e­cute its man­date. That as­sess­ment is not to be mean, but merely to para­phrase Pub­lic Works Di­rec­tor-Gen­eral Mzi­woke Dla­bantu. Dla­bantu, un­usu­ally among the de­ployed ANC cadres mas­querad­ing as pub­lic ser­vants, ap­pears com­mit­ted to do­ing some­thing about it. A few weeks ago, he told the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Pub­lic Ac­counts that the rot within Pub­lic Works runs deep, and a “huge, sus­tained and strate­gic in­ter­ven­tion” is needed to root it out.

The clean-up crew of Min­is­ter Thu­las Nx­esi, Deputy Min­is­ter Jeremy Cronin and Dla­bantu have their work cut out. Aside from the Nkand­la­gate shenani­gans, in the past fi­nan­cial year alone, there was ir­reg­u­lar ex­pen­di­ture to the tune of R181 mil­lion, as well as unau­tho­rised ex­pen­di­ture of R69 mil­lion.

And that’s the tip of the ice­berg. An­other R9,7 bil­lion of trans­ac­tions re­main unau­dited.

Con­se­quently, Pub­lic Works, which through labour-in­ten­sive in­fras­truc­tural pro­grammes should be cre­at­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of jobs in marginalised com­mu­ni­ties, has in­stead been en­gaged on what Cronin has de­scribed as “fire­fight­ing” cor­rup­tion and in­com­pe­tence. Cronin ad­mits that to drive mass job cre­ation, the min­istry will have to de­pend on the man­age­rial ex­per­tise of the In­de­pen­dent De­vel­op­ment Trust (IDT) — a semi-au­ton­o­mous agency dat­ing to the apartheid era with am­biva­lent le­gal sta­tus. The IDT’s man­date is to pro­mote com­mu­nity par­tic­i­pa­tion in the cre­ation of so­cial in­fra­struc­ture, some­thing that nei­ther govern­ment nor busi­ness is much good at. Re­cent par­lia­men­tary statis­tics on school build­ings high­light the prob­lem. It costs Pub­lic Works, us­ing bricks and mor­tar, R1,08 mil­lion to build a sin­gle class­room, with a likely life span of 100 to 200 years. There is lit­tle at­tempt to in­volve lo­cal labour, the money prob­a­bly go­ing to po­lit­i­cally con­nected ten­der­preneurs.

The IDT, us­ing new al­ter­na­tive con­struc­tion meth­ods (ACM), can do the job for R692 514 and its class­rooms will last at least 30 years, al­though likely much longer. Th­ese ACM are mainly fac­tory-built pan­elised units, trucked in and as­sem­bled on site us­ing some lo­cal labour — the multi­bil­lion IDT school-build­ing pro­gramme cre­ated 8 044 tem­po­rary “work op­por­tu­ni­ties” last year.

And then — un­her­alded, un­recog­nised and un­funded by govern­ment — there are the boot­strap groups, the ul­ti­mate in com­mu­nity mo­bil­i­sa­tion. The epitome of this spirit is the Eshowe Com­mu­nity Ac­tion Group (ECAG), started by Ro­tar­i­ans in that north­ern KwaZulu-Na­tal ham­let in 1977. ECAG has built about 3 500 class­rooms us­ing lo­cal labour, mostly women, over­seen by a vol­un­teer en­gi­neer and a quan­tity sur­veyor. The com­mu­nity con­trib­utes free labour to level the ground and fence the site, as well as a de­posit of R4 200 to show its com­mit­ment. Per­haps, as a con­se­quence, the schools are cher­ished com­mu­nity as­sets. The cost? Us­ing bricks and mor­tar, at R125 000 per class­room. If the school wants ceil­ings and elec­tric­ity, it means an­other R25 000.

Who pays? Provin­cial govern­ment used to kick in R7 500 per class­room, which went to school funds, but has stopped do­ing so. The cost is cov­ered by lo­cal and for­eign donors.

Ob­vi­ously, ECAG can’t build SA’s scores of thou­sands of miss­ing class­rooms. It does, how­ever, pro­vide a model for job cre­ation and com­mu­nity in­volve­ment that a re­vi­talised Pub­lic Works could en­cour­age. Cronin, a Com­mu­nist, is its ob­vi­ous ad­vo­cate.

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