Lindiwe Sisulu. Picture: REUTERS
Lindiwe Sisulu. Picture: REUTERS

There is no doubt that human settlements, water & sanitation minister Lindiwe Sisulu has a mountain to climb in cleaning up a department that has been plagued by corruption and financial mismanagement for years.

Steps are being taken, but progress in holding those responsible to account has been slow, as revealed in a series of presentations over the past few weeks to various parliamentary committees. This was also noted by parliament’s watchdog committee, the standing committee on public accounts (Scopa), which said recently that it was not satisfied with progress in dealing with unauthorised, irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure cases at the department and the Water Trading Entity.  

Sisulu’s response is that progress is being made and that she is proud of the achievements. She acknowledges that there has been a lack of consequence management in the department, which continues to employ many officials implicated in fraud and corruption, but gives the assurance that this is being addressed.

She inherited a bankrupt department with billions of rand in arrears. Much of the financial mismanagement is laid at the door of former minister Nomvula Mokonyane, who was accused at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture of accepting bribes from facilities management company Bosasa. Mokonyane has denied wrongdoing.

Mokonyane was in charge of the department between 2014 and 2018, followed for a year by Gugile Nkwinti. Sisulu took over in May 2019 and has had a lot to digest, even before the emergence of demands posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has required her department to urgently provide water-deprived communities and schools with access to water and sanitation.

With challenges as big as these, it is regrettable, however necessary, that so much effort has had to be devoted to cleaning up the mess of the past. With the alleged corruption and irregular expenditure in the department and the Water Trading Entity, which supplies raw water to the water boards amounting to more than R16bn, only the surface has been scratched.

The unenviable task is made even more difficult by the lack of capacity to deal with the large number of cases to be investigated and the diminished ability of the department to recover the losses based on insufficient available information.

The scale of the problem is clear from the fact that from April 2012 to September 2019, a total of 249 reported cases were investigated, of which 139 were found to be true and referred for disciplinary action. The minister said a total of 48 cases of serious misconduct had been found within the department, of which six involved deputy directors-general and chief directors. These cases involved irregular expenditure contracts valued at R7bn.

The Special Investigating Unit is also looking into various matters related to the department and the water boards, and 20 criminal cases have been opened with the police.

Nevertheless, the measures taken so far give little assurance that those involved in looting the state of massive amounts of money will be brought to book. There have been dismissals, demotions, suspensions without pay and warning letters but few if any prosecutions and little or no recovery of money lost.

The minister recently appointed advocate Terry Motau to lead a legal team to probe fraud, corruption and irregular expenditure in the department as well as in some of the nine water boards. Sisulu has also appointed a “stabilisation committee” to advise her and the department. It has expedited investigations and is helping to ensure the efficient functioning of the department.

Sisulu, who failed in her bid for the ANC presidency in the last race, is understood to still harbour presidential ambitions. She should establish the water & sanitation department on a sound footing as proof of her governance abilities should she throw her hat into the ring next time around.