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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.