South Africa’s water boards will be required to sign a declaration that binds and commits their leadership to ensure there is no corruption in the sector. Speaking to the Free State Weekly’s Thapelo Molebatsi, Human Settlements, Water, and Sanitation Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu said she is concerned about the huge amounts of money owed to water boards across the country, including R2.5 billion owed to Sedibeng Water by Matjhabeng Local Municipality. This painted an unpleasant picture, she noted.
You had a meeting with chairpersons of South African water boards over the weekend. What was the purpose of the meeting?
Our meeting was about cleaning up the environment in the water sector. We need to lead in ensuring that ours is a clean environment.
By a clean environment, do you suggest or conceed that corruption is prevalent in the water sector?
Am saying there’s been allegations of corruption in the water sector and our meeting clearly stated that we won’t tolerate any corrupt activity during our time.
In dealing with the allegations, what action has been taken by the Department of Water?
Allegations, anywhere you go, be it national level, provincial or local level are probed because it is also illegal to act on allegations without proof. Therefore we’ve decided to look into all allegations that have brought to our doorstep because one thing we are not going tolerate is corruption, especially in this sector.
You’ve made it clear that you want a corruption-free sector. How do you as minister achieve this objective?
The responsibility doesn’t necessarily lie on my shoulder but all of us; the respective chairpersons of the board in the different provinces and myself as minister. That is something we agreed on during the meeting. Also, we’ve agreed to sign a declaration that binds and commits us all as the leadership of water institutions to ensuring there is no corrupt activity in our area.
But as the minister, would you agree that as the face of the water sector, the buck stops with you?
I’m very well aware of that. Much as the responsibility to act strongly against any acts of corruption in the sector, we will do so without hesitation and that message was communicated to the respective chairpersons during the gathering.
While you have come down hard on water boards, the same can’t be said with municipalities that do not play their part when it comes to payments. Why is this the case?
It’s a wrong assumption to suggest that we are lenient with municipalities on the issue of non-payment. This is not the case at all. This matter was also raised during the gathering and clarity and the way forward was provided.
Some of the water boards, including in the Free State, have decided to cut water supply as a means of forcing respective municipalities to pay. What is your take on the matter?
We are well aware of this approach and we’ve discussed the matter at length with our boards and agreed that every cent must be utilised to ensure that local government, i.e. Water Service Authorities, are provided with bulk water necessary for them to distribute to the people of South Africa.
Recently, Sedibeng Water stated that Matjhabeng Local Municipality owed a shocking R2.5 billion. Surely this places enormous weight on Sedibeng to render the necessary services with such a huge bill on the card?
Yes, am well aware of the situation. It’s a not desirable situation where one municipality is sitting on that kind of bill. It raises a lot of questions and clearly shows that something must be done to address the situation. I agree that it paints a bad picture not only about the municipality but the department itself. Municipalities are not servicing their debt and water boards are struggling as a result.
What exactly is happening at Matjhabeng? To say the situation down there calls for concern and leave it at that is not a solution. Is there a plan at hand to resolve this problem?
We are not leaving matters at that as suggested. What we are saying is that we acknowledge that there’s a problem. It’s equally important for people to know that these bills have not been accrued overnight but have been accumulating for many years. Matjhabeng Municipality and Sedibeng Water Board have not been managing their finances properly over a long time, hence the state they are in right now.
It was announced that an inter-governmental team had been established to deal with the matter. Has that been done or is it something that is yet to be put in place?
Yes, several inter-governmental meetings involving Salga, Cogta, and National Treasury have been held with the municipality in an attempt to find an amicable way to service this huge debt.
During the meeting some of the chairpersons said they believe municipalities are deliberating not servicing their debts. Could this be the case why boards are experiencing R10-billion debts from municipalities across the country?
Various chairpersons expressed their feelings on the matter but we must always remember that in such a situation, involving huge amounts of money, we can’t reduce the conversation to feelings. While we acknowledge it, it’s difficult and feeble for us to put it to that.
What do you think is the reason behind non-payment from municipalities?
We need to understand that a lot of people are unemployed. Communities are feeling the heat and Covid-19 is not making it easier across the board. Large parts of the Free State and in the North West province, for example, over 70 percent of the population is indigent and cannot afford to pay for services and once you take all that into account, you realise just how tough things are for our people. And this is not based on feelings but on the reality on the ground. These are some of the challenges that we as national government, working together with other departments, need to find ways around the matter.
There’s been an on-going battle between Mangaung Metro Municipality and Bloem Water, also over non-payment. What is the minister take on this one?
Am aware that Bloem Water and Kopanong Local Municipality have reached a payment agreement and one hopes that such constructive conversation between two entities becomes a permanent feature. Am hopeful that Mangaung Municipality comes to the party and does what’s right because we can’t have ordinary people denied essential services such as water, especially during this difficult time of pandemic were water is most needed.