MPs fume as water dept fails to explain R1.5bn debt


Cape Town – MPs across the political spectrum slammed the Department of Water and Sanitation on Tuesday after its officials failed to explain how the department still owed contractors R1.5bn.

The department was due before the portfolio committee on Tuesday to discuss, among other things, outstanding budget issues, its annual performance plan, and the R1.5bn figure that has been rolled over from previous financial years.

Deputy minister Pamela Tshwete and chief financial officer Sifiso Mkhize could not adequately explain where the department will get the money to pay the debt.

The department overspent R18m on the previous financial year’s budget, had owed the various water boards R482m (which was only paid off in March), and is under pressure to find R2bn for extra projects for the upcoming year.

On top of that, the department’s budget decreased slightly for the 2017/18 year, Mkhize told the committee.

“I can’t understand how you can have an accrual for R1.5bn?” African National Congress MP Thomas Makondo said.

“For a department like this you can have R200m, R300m, but not R1.5bn. We are not being told the truth here.”

Forensic investigation

His Democratic Alliance counterpart, Leon Basson, was equally unimpressed.

“The R1.5bn you owe contractors. How are you going to pay it?” Basson asked.

“You’ve got funding pressure for another R2bn. I need to get clarity, how are you going to get that?”

To make matters worse, department director general Dan Mashitisho arrived late for the meeting, while Minister Nomvula Mokonyane was not present.

Tshwete said they did not want to give the committee only half the story. They were not ready to brief the committee on all the requested topics, and, at the absent minister’s request, would like to do so at a future meeting.

“We are wasting our time here and we can’t get answers,” African Independent Congress MP Mandlenkosi Galo said.

Galo suggested a forensic investigation take place.

A treasury official who was present told the committee that accruals were an exception to usual budget practice. The department was ensuring it could find a way to pay back the debt by not allowing it to become unauthorised expenditure.

Bailout

Both Tshwete and Mkhize answered that the droughts faced in various provinces around the country over the last two years were the cause of the massive debt.

Mkhize said the funds had to be reprioritised from other projects which they could pay at the time, due to the urgent nature of the provincial droughts.

“We never anticipated the severity of drought, [and] which municipalities were not doing their work,” Tshwete added.

“Delivering water from one part of the country to another costs money. And we haven’t heard anyone dying of thirst during the drought. At least we tried,” she said.

Basson said the department is setting up emerging, black contractors for failure by not paying, and they cannot afford to take the department to court.

He suggested that national treasury intervene and discuss a potential bailout to ensure the contractors were paid.

ANC MP Hlomane Chauke and committee chairperson Lulu Johnson said they wanted to hear from the minister and the director general on the matter in future, so they can speak for themselves.

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