One of the few positives arising from the disastrous period during which President Jacob Zuma occupied the Union Buildings is the fact that it appears to have woken up Parliament, albeit belatedly, to the oversight role envisaged for it in the Constitution – as Institute for Security Studies senior research consultant Judith February wrote in a recent analysis of the Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises’ State capture inquiry: “Parliament, in its State capture inquiry, seems to have found some of its voice.”
Notwithstanding its shortcomings, the committee’s Eskom probe has served to highlight that it is indeed possible for politicians to unite, across party lines, in a genuine attempt to make government, or, in this case, a State-owned company answerable for its actions, while also seeking to detect and prevent abuses.
There is now an opportunity for lawmakers to demonstrate similar vigour and nonpartisanship as they gear up to probe the alleged financial and organisational collapse at the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation.
Established by a joint committee of the Portfolio Committee on Water and Sanitation and the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), the inquiry will interrogate worrying matters raised in a report by the auditor-general, as well as in a Budgetary Review and Recommendation Report. The auditor-general has reported fruitless and wasteful expenditure by the department, which doubled in 2016/17, and that, while billions were spent on 28% of the work, the department failed to account for the rest of the money.
At the time of writing, the scope of the inquiry had not been announced. However, Scopa chairperson Themba Godi did not mince his words when outlining just how serious the collapse at the department had been while Nomvula Mokonyane was Minister – President Cyril Ramaphosa has since reshuffled Mokonyane to the Communications portfolio. In an interview with Business Times, Godi said: “The department is now so dysfunctional and bankrupt that it is unable to undertake projects in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape to ensure that those of our people who do not have water get it . . . We want to know who did what and why, and how things came to be where they are.”
Godi also indicated that criminal charges could well follow and revealed that he had met with the National Prosecuting Authority of South Africa to ensure a permanent official was at the inquiry so that issues arising could be followed up, or referred to the police for investigation.
The inquiry comes at an opportune time, owing to the heightened sense of concern about the state of water security in South Africa. Indeed, it is so bad that the drought in the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape has at last been declared a national state of disaster.
As seasoned water expert Mike Muller put it recently: “Suddenly, everyone is interested in water. But that interest needs to be harnessed and guided.”
The joint committee has an opportunity to do just that, while, at the same time, consolidating the gains made in recent months in affirming Parliament’s crucial oversight role.