Any person going into this department needs a prayer. It is one of the biggest after the departments of human settlements and water and sanitation were merged this year.
The water and sanitation department has little to show after years of a crisis caused by former ministers, endemic corruption and mismanagement, resulting in financial ruin. The former minister, Gugile Nkwinti, called the department “a mess”. The auditor general declared it bankrupt.
The department has had nine directors general in as many years. Irregular expenditure grew from R13-million in 2009 to R1.7-billion in the past financial year. Numerous projects are still incomplete and in jeopardy because of financial collapse, including the Giyani water project, the toilet bucket eradication programme and the programme to fix leaking water pipes.
Drought and the effects of climate change have placed significant pressure on this department.
As if this is not a big enough challenge for Sisulu, the human settlements department has its own long list of inadequacies, including entities placed under administration.
Hers has to be one of the hardest jobs in this administration.
An important step was the release of the national water and sanitation master plan, which is “a plan intended to guide the water sector with investment planning for the development of water resources and the delivery of water and sanitation services over the horizon until 2030, and beyond”, according to the department. It includes addressing backlogs in infrastructure investment, eliminating wastage and any loss as a result of corruption and mismanagement, addressing investor concerns, issuing water licences and dealing with badly maintained infrastructure.
The plan is bold and Sisulu said it will be phased in over 10 years at a cost of close to R1-trillion. But most of the money will have to be sourced from other portfolios — something which has made her ministerial peers mutter opposition to the plan.
As she unveiled the master plan, Sisulu promised that the Vaal Dam Project will bring in highly skilled people and government officials by the beginning of next year to ensure that there is accountability and hands-on management of the systems in the catchment area.
She has also focused on water licences, which are integral to investors and job creation. She said these used to take up to three years but now, she is confident that they will be processed in just 49 days.
To deal with infrastructural issues, the department, working with the treasury, will establish the National Water Resources and Services Authority to finance, develop, manage and operate national water resource infrastructure and sanitation. Sisulu said this will allow her department to “expedite a review of all current infrastructure projects with the plan to complete them”.
In her human settlements portfolio, Sisulu hit the ground running. She immediately courted controversy by appointing constitutional delinquent Bathabile Dlamini as the new chairperson of the Social Housing Regulatory Authority interim board. This entity is meant to regulate social housing for people earning between R1 500 and R15 000 a month.
In a radio interview, Sisulu’s spokesperson, Makhosini Mgitywa, defended the appointment, saying Dlamini’s experience in social development would be valuable in addressing social housing issues.
Dlamini was the social development minister during the time of the South African Social Security Agency debacle involving the payment of social grants.
More should be expected from Sisulu, because it’s not her first time in charge of that department. In 2017, she promised to establish the Human Settlements Development Bank, to accelerate the delivery of housing. The bank is still not fully functioning.
Sisulu did hand over 500 title deeds in Cornubia, about 17km north of Durban’s city centre, to low and middle-income earners. The cynics would say this was a political move to accelerate an election campaign.
And Sisulu, thanks to her “blue blood” status in the ANC, continues to be linked to rumours of her wish to attain higher office, “with claims emerging that she is loading her ministry with loyalists in a bid to build a campaign for her to replace David Mabuza as ANC deputy president.
In water, sanitation and housing, Sisulu oversees a department that is crucial to the fate of her party in the 2021 local government elections.
With rumours of a Cabinet reshuffle, allegedly to remove her from the powerful portfolio, it does seem politics might undo what good Sisulu might build in the two devastated departments.
People’s quality of life depends on Sisulu getting things right. There is no margin for error.