Thulas Nxesi is South Africa’s handyman-in-chief, overseeing the construction and maintenance of state buildings, leases and land, employing millions in the process and regulating construction.
He picked up the nation’s toolbox in 2011, inheriting a department riddled with problems. Setting aside his tools, Nxesi grabbed a broom. All 3 000 state leases were audited, some were challenged in court, criminal charges were laid and senior officials have been disciplined and fired.
After hiring the first permanent director general in five years, Nxesi says the leadership has “stabilised”.
A qualified audit opinion for 2013 suggests the finances are a mess, but this follows two consecutive disclaimers. From a low base, the picture is improving.
Last year, a million people got jobs through the expanded public works programme, putting the department “on target” to provide 4.5-million work opportunities by 2015.
Still, the department incurred massive irregular expenditure in 2013. It underspent on capital projects and its leasing portfolio and asset register are in a shambles, despite improvements.
A skills drain hobbles the department and yawning loopholes in procurement systems invite fraudsters.
There was never going to be a quick fix for Nxesi. One of his biggest problems is the so-called prestige portfolio, which he calls “a major area of collusion and irregular expenditure which has attracted negative publicity, deservedly”.
This includes the R210-million presidential hideaway at Nkandla, where Nxesi admits procurement systems failed. Officials and contractors are likely to be dealt with, but the broom appears to stop there.
Nxesi repeats: “I will not play politics with the security of the president.” Yet critics say this is exactly what he and “the security cluster” are doing, fecklessly trying to snuff out anything that could taint President Jacob Zuma.
Nxesi should drop the cloak of secrecy, freeing his hands to wield his tools and his broom more effectively.