A Failed Province: Cautionary Tale For S.Africa

Published February 4, 2012 1:54PM (EST)

GIYANI, South Africa (AP) — The giant pipes lying idle along the road were supposed to deliver water from a dam completed six years ago to villages across the region.

Instead, they have become a symbol of government greed and failure in South Africa's impoverished north, where families are still walking miles (kilometers) to the nearest well.

A court suspended the water project after unsuccessful bidders filed suit, arguing that graft played a part in the choice of contractor. It's just one of several lawsuits challenging how contracts are awarded in Limpopo province.

Now the national government has stepped in, sending its officials to oversee and try to find budget savings in the provincial departments of education, finance, health, public works, transportation and water.

Limpopo province "has been spending beyond its means. This has to stop," it said.

The national government gave no names and provided few specifics. But a visitor doesn't have to spend much time in this province of 5 million people before seeing suspended or abandoned government construction projects.

Government-built homes for the poor have leaking roofs and crumbling brickwork. Residents say windows were so poorly installed that thieves just pull out the whole frame to break in. Potholed roads are said to have started crumbling within months of tar being put down.

That contrasts with the extravagant homes said to have been built by friends, relatives and business partners of important politicians.

The South African government says Limpopo's provincial government also was paying "ghost teachers," failing to ensure that schools had the money to keep running, and failing to pay suppliers to its hospitals and clinics.

National investigators are probing provincial leaders' decision-making and whether illegal payments had been made. The province apparently was paying some contractors so often it could not keep track of whether the work or services being billed had been done.

Critics say Limpopo's failures are linked to provincial Premier Cassel Mathale and another prominent politician from the province, Julius Malema. Both men deny any wrongdoing.

The provincial wing of the country's governing ANC party has rallied behind them, and has disputed the need for the national government's intervention in provincial affairs.

ANC provincial spokesman Makondele Mathiva compared the corruption accusations against Mathale and Malema with allegations that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

"Where is the evidence?" he said. "There must be some people concocting these stories for reasons I believe are political."

Malema was seen as the kingmaker who helped Jacob Zuma become South Africa's president. He gained a strong national following with his populist rhetoric, but his influence has waned since the ANC suspended him for five years for violating the party's discipline code. On Saturday, party officials said they were giving him a second chance to fight that suspension, but upheld the guilty verdicts.

Limpopo is among the nine provinces created for a democratic South Africa following the end of apartheid in 1994. It was carved out of what was once the sprawling Transvaal province.

Though an estimated 40 percent of Limpopo's workforce is unemployed, compared to a national average of 25 percent, Limpopo's capital, Polokwane, has the look of a 21st century frontier boomtown. The new buildings springing up on its flat grid aren't saloons and mining license offices, but a premier's office with an imposing stone facade, and something chic and modernist for the department of economic development.

Observers say the governing ANC party needs to pay more attention to the plight of the poor and to voters' concerns about corruption. Otherwise, they say the party credited with ending racist white rule also will be remembered as the party that oversaw the failure of yet another African state.

Opposition politicians like Willy Mhlongo say they expect voters to punish the ANC come the next provincial elections, which will be run alongside national voting in 2014.

But Mhlongo said that while the ANC might lose a few more seats, he did not expect its vast majority to be overturned. Opposition parties, he said, were still too small and poor, he said, but added he believed that would slowly change.

Piet Coetzer, who was a politician in the waning days of apartheid, said he did not believe the new politicians were any more inclined to graft than the old. Instead, he said, a lack of skills to provide sufficient oversight created an impression of graft gone rampant.

Coetzer said one of his last official duties as a Transvaal politician was to host a farewell party for civil servants who had decided to retire rather than move from the old Transvaal capital of Pretoria to new capitals like Polokwane. He said they collectively held 1,000 years of experience.

But Gilbert Kganyaso, head of the province's chapter of the South African Communist Party, was impatient with talk of the burden of the past. Nearly 18 years of government, he said, "should have made us accumulate experience."

The Communist Party is an ANC ally. That made it all the more striking to hear Kganyaso, wearing a dashiki in the ANC's green and gold, putting the blame solely on decisions made and attitudes honed since 1994.

"Failure to develop the economy has led to people generally looking to the government for economic opportunity," Kganyaso said. "There seems to be a developing culture that says you can thrive without putting in an effort, that you can live without working. You just have to have a laptop at home, and that's all that you do, prepare documents to be processed by government and the next morning you check if there's payment."

Now that the national government has stepped in in Limpopo, Kganyaso said, he expected to see local politicians go to jail. And he said voters would have to be better educated, so that they would elect better leaders.

Kganyaso called South Africa "almost a one-party state," and worried that the ANC's overwhelming majority at the national and provincial levels had left its leaders complacent and distant from the concerns of the poor majority.

He said leaders needed to look at failed states elsewhere in the world, and realize that without reform, "we as Limpopo and we as South Africa will inevitably fall into the same trap."

By Salon Staff

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