William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Public Works: Finding small solutions to big problems

The most rash 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 attempt at mass job creation – as opposed to the political cronyism and nepotism that drives the steady 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, acknowledges the unhappy reality and appears committed to doing something about it. A few weeks back he told the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) that the rot within Public Works ran deep, and a ‘huge, sustained and strategic intervention’ was 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 R181m, as well as unauthorised expenditure of R69-million. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. Another R9.7-billionn 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 with ambivalent legal status dating to the apartheid era. The IDT’s mandate is to promote community participation in the development of social infrastructure, something that neither government nor business are much good at.

Recent parliamentary statistics on school building highlight the problem. It costs Public Works, using bricks and mortar, R1,08-million to build a single classroom, with a likely lifespan of 100-200 years. There is little or no attempt to involve local labour, the money probably going mostly to politically connected tenderpreneurs.

The IDT, using new alternative construction methods (ACM), can do the same job for R692 514 and their classroom will last at least 30 years, although likely much longer. These ACM are mainly panelised units built in a factory, then trucked in and assembled on site, using some local labour – the multi-billion IDT school building programme created 8 044 temporary ‘work opportunities’ last year.

And then – unheralded, unrecognised and unfunded by government – there are the boot-strap 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 around 3 500 classrooms using only local labour, mostly women, with each project 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 cash deposit of R4 200 to indicate its commitment. Perhaps as a consequence, these schools are cherished community assets and have rarely been vandalised.

The cost? Using conventional bricks and mortar, all of R125 000 per classroom. If the school wants to lash out with ceilings and for the classroom to be wired for electricity, that adds another R25 000 to the bill.

Who pays? Provincial government used to kick in R7 500 per classroom, which went to into school funds, but a few years back stopped doing so. All of 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. And Cronin, a SA Communist Party stalwart after all, would be an obvious champion of such grassroot solutions.

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  • An open letter to Minister Pravin Gordhan
    • Daniel Berti

      Nice article.

    • Kreef

      Eye opening stuff . Pity the it will pass right by the fat cat leaders and decision makers .

    • Charlotte

      @WSM That’s telling it like it is: Absolutely unnerving!
      Any ANC government-run department simply goes from bad to atrocious – and in this case, abominable.

      To repeat the assessment by Public Works director-general Mziwoke Diabvantu (‘unusually among the deployed ANC cadres masquerading as public servants’):
      “Unfortunately Public Works has been rotten to the core – corrupt , incompetent, wasteful and lacking in managerial depth to execute its mandate.”

      “Another R9.7 billion of transactions remain unaudited.” Ye Gods! (Remember: A billion is a million millions. Work that out!)
      Comparing this figure – even on a much smaller scale: Just imagine how many classrooms, toilets, shelters could be provided with what is being spent on the wasteful disgrace of Nkandla and on a president who doesn’t deserve to be holding the position he is in the first place and is laughing all the way to the bank – and the bedroom… er, sorry … boardroom.

    • Iona Sacks

      A young man recently suggested bringing back Compulsory Conscription for all school leavers who are not going to study further.if you read the book “start up Nation”
      You will get an idea of what skills young Israelis learn while doing their compulsory Army training.This will be one way of getting our youth off the streets and becoming employable

    • Charlotte

      The ideals for which Nelson Mandela stood for and gave his life for, are upheld today by the DA. The present ANC has reversed the process: It is the government who are supposed to work for the people – not the people who are supposed to work for the government.
      Cronyism does not replace hard work and honesty. The government is supposed to serve the public – not the other way around.

      There is hope for all young S Africans to bring new energy to the political platform. The country needs credible, accountable and efficient leadership – which is not to be found anywhere and in any measure, in the ANC today.
      In fact, it is quite the opposite: It is the DA – and other opposition parties (such as Agang – which work towards the implementation of a non-racist, equal opportunity society of which Mandela dreamed and to which he aspired.

    • Chris Lombard

      @Charlotte, please see below regarding Billion, South Africa can use either short or long scale so it can be bit confusing. Britain officially changed to short scale in 1974 and most of the common wealth countries now use the short scale. I do believe when the government use Billion, it refers to a thousand million and not a million million.

      Long scale is the English translation of the French term échelle longue. It refers to a system of large-number names in which every new term greater than million is a million times the previous term. Thus, billion means a million millions (1012), trillion means a million billions (1018), and so on.

      Short scale is the English translation of the French term échelle courte. It refers to a system of large-number names in which every new term greater than million is 1,000 times the previous term. Thus, billion means a thousand millions (109), trillion means a thousand billions (1012), and so on.

    • Charlotte

      @ Chris Lombard
      Interesting….. Something to be noted.
      In fact, I did check the word ‘billion’ in the dictionary (which gave it as ‘a million millions’) .before I submitted my comment.
      So one should definitely be aware of what you say and watch out for it.

      However, be that as it may: even if, in this case, R9.67 billion means 9.67 thousand millions … again, I ask:
      ‘Comparing this figure – even on a much smaller scale, just imagine how many classrooms, toilets, shelters could be provided with what is being spent on the wasteful disgrace of Nkandla …. etc.’ – never mind what 9.67 thousand million rand could provide!

    • Paul S

      There’s nothing like hard numbers to lay bare the true facts of the matter. Excellent article coupled to solid analysis

    • ConCision

      Another CAN of Worms Opened
      ANC corruption and mismanagement,
      Is actually becoming quite boring
      Except news of each new malefaction
      Becomes more and more appalling

      No good moaning about government degeneration
      Use your vote: Kick them out in the coming election

    • Scipio

      There are however some excellent public departments, largely free of corruption and with good service standards. An example is Home Affairs, led by the dynamic and hard working Ms Dlamini-Zuma. These can be models for other departments.

    • Clip Clop

      @ Scipio. In your dreams, babes. …. Wake up!
      Ms Dlamini-Zuma does not lead Home Affairs any more. She is not even in South Africa – and hasn’t been for some time..

      Did you not read this author’s reporting of Thuli Madonsela’s ruling last year regarding the deportation order served on the Van Hillegonsberg family ?
      – that they were the victims of “Home Affairs maladministration and abuse of power.”

      They are all cut from the same cloth: ANC cronyism, ineptitude and corruption.

    • Joseph Coates

      Interesting article, if , the ANC allowed at the time of tranfer of power, proper training of every aspect in the corperate/ other work enviroments, we would not be sitting with all the insufficiencies in the work place and the list is endless.
      Experience is linked with communication skills and proper training. Academic qualifications do matter but it’s only theory not yet put into practice.

    • Momma Cyndi

      “It costs Public Works, using bricks and mortar, R1,08-million to build a single classroom”

      Lord have mercy! Really? One classroom worth more than an average three bedroom house? I so wish I could say that I did not believe it.

      Whatever happened to that initiative with the locally baked bricks and the community builders?

    • Concerned

      R1,08-million to build a single classroom is totally absurd. A normal three bedroom house is MUCH more complex to build, requires much more materials yet costs much, much less to build. As ECAG has clearly demonstrated.

      Clearly the “civil” “servants” who are involved are so used to dealing with crooked companies that they have no idea of building costs, and are so conditioned to add massive margins for kickbacks.

      All schools in proclaimed suburbs should be built for permanent use. Urbanisation is a given, and the birthrate (with the ANC’s interest in growing the poor voter base) is sure to remain high. Conversely, schools providing for squatter camps can be temporary, but re-used when squatter camps are replaced.

      But will the ANC even bother to respond? Don’t hold your breath!

    • Joseph Coates

      @ Concerned your comment August 23rd. I hear your sentiments about the abuse of mismanagement of finances.
      By now, nearly twenty years downn the road, our informal settlements should have had proper sanitation & electricity and low coast housing should have been put into action.
      Allowing them the choice to purchase with a minimum deposit.
      Let’s not discuss the educational system with overcrowded classrooms and inadequately skilled teachers. This issue only riles me to no end.
      Wander who is accountable for mismanagement of finances in the educational dept or for that fact in any of the goevernmental departments where finances have become a hot topic of contention???
      Don’t hold your breath ! Is an understatement …..

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