Public Works: small solutions for big problems
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.