A few years ago, when she was still premier of Gauteng, Nomvula Mokonyane’s no-nonsense stance towards service delivery and hardline approach against corruption earned her the name “Mama Action”.
Those who worked with her feared her like the plague. She commanded respect even among opposition parties. Her approval ratings in the media, which is well known for having little regard and forbearance for politicians, was considerably high. At last, many colleagues erroneously concluded, here was a politician who meant business. Here was a politician who would restore some faith in the ANC, whose brand was being assaulted from all angles after President Jacob Zuma and his band of ANC and private sector highwaymen.
Last Saturday evening I attended a gathering where a former senior Gauteng province bureaucrat was present. The individual, who could not be accused of talking under the influence of social lubricants, told of how – when Mokonyane was still premier – she kept her health MEC Qedani Mahlangu on a tight lead and on the straight and narrow.
“She may have issues now, but let me tell you, the health department was messed up. It sucked all our resources so that there was no money for anything else. Nomvula acted swiftly and brought the situation under control, reducing massive irregular and unauthorised expenditure to respectable levels. When Nomvula left the province in 2009, Qedani breathed a sigh of relief. If Nomvula was still in Gauteng, the Life Esidimeni tragedy would not have happened,” the former bureaucrat said.
This fellow is not alone. Towards the end of last year a senior executive in the department of water and sanitation told me that “when Nomvula arrived here, she was such a breath of fresh air. She had bright ideas and we were all ready to work hard with her”.
Mokonyane left the premier’s office in Gauteng with a relatively clean record. She may have had one or two skeletons (nyana) but it’s nothing that should cause you to lose your sleep, dear reader.
But now things appear to have gone pear-shaped, in spectacular fashion.
On Sunday City Press reported that Mokonyane’s department, which had an annual budget of about R15 billion, was about R4.3 billion in the red. Things are so bad that frustrated senior officials are calling for the Cabinet to consider placing the department under administration. They have a point. Any citizen who is not worried about the collapse of the department of water and sanitation needs urgent psychiatric attention.
Over the past year City Press has documented the systemic attempt by businesspeople close to Mokonyane to hijack major and key water infrastructural projects such as the R26-billion Lesotho Highlands Water Project (Phase 2), R5-billion Giyani Emergency Project, Mhlathuze Water and Umgeni Water boards. Rumours about the goings on at critical water boards such as Rand Water, Sedibeng and Boshelo water boards do not inspire confidence either. Equally, the Umzimvubu Water Project and the Trans Caledon Tunnel Authority are rumoured to be in trouble of one kind or the other.
Following City Press’ report other media outlets followed with the following worrying reports:
» The East London-based Daily Dispatch reported that the department has had to attach assets worth R73 million belonging to the OR Tambo Municipality, which has failed to honour a debt that had been growing since 2011
» The Port Elizabeth-based Herald reported that the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipality had expressed grave concerns about the Nooitgedacht Coega Low Level Water Scheme, which had to be funded by the department.
“At stake is the long-awaited Nooitgedacht Coega Low Level Water Scheme, which will not only be a crucial lifeline for residents and business, but which is also vital for future population and economic growth,” the paper said.
This week Mokonyane’s public relations machinery launched an offensive, denying all the allegations that the department was broke. They claimed that if there were contractors who had not been paid, it was because the department was still verifying if the work had indeed been done.
But by its own admission in letters obtained by City Press, and accounts of Treasury and senior officials in Mokonyane’s office, the department was broke, and would only start paying the invoices in the new financial year.
These examples of the mess in water and sanitation affairs indicate that Mokonyane has lost complete control of the department. These, coupled with facts that law enforcement agencies such as the Hawks, Special Investigating Unit and even the Public Protector, Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane, are probing possible corruption in the department should prompt Cabinet into action.
Urgent steps are required if we are to avert an Eskom-type crisis from which we will take years and billions of rands to recover. While there are energy substitutes for electricity, there is no substitute in the case of water. This is especially critical in a water-scarce country like ours, which is prone to occasional drought.
Mokonyane and the vultures circling around her should not be allowed to play a game of musical chairs with the future of our country. We cannot afford to be without water, which is the lifeblood of economic and social advancement.
So critical is water that nations have gone to war over it. Many conflicts have arisen around the Euphrates, Tigris Jordan rivers and the Suez Canal. Equally, history is replete with incidents of complete towns and civilisations that died due to water shortages. As they say, those who don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it.