By Valencia Talane

Protests and dissatisfaction centred on poor service delivery are nothing new in South Africa – in fact, they are now commonplace. A recent Corruption Watch report on water reveals that, although the government claims improved access to water and sanitation, this is often far from being the case – and the reason is corruption.

This type of corruption has been reported regularly to Corruption Watch since our launch in January 2012.

Phiri Primary School in Soweto is one of those intitutions affected by corruption. We heard about the school not through our usual reporting channels, but via a community engagement, and we decided to investigate further.

Nothing sets the school apart from its counterparts in the vast township. It has the characteristics of a typical township public school: small train-like buildings with patches of gardens between, shiny stoeps along the outside of the classrooms and a timeworn wire fence bordering its grounds.

A patch of field that used to be a playground separates the principal’s office from three blocks of toilet buildings, the only sign of modern infrastructure on the premises. The toilets at Phiri and three other schools – Nkholi and Sedibathuto primary schools and Reutlwile Junior Secondary School – were meant to be built between May and August 2012. Local people were hired to work on the project.

But almost two years after the construction started, and over R8-million later, the principals are left with more questions than answers. Things did not go according to the original plan and the Gauteng government has had to dip into its pockets to make concessions for a project gone wrong – it hired mobile toilets for the pupils for over a year, sourced as a matter of urgency in 2012.

Phiri principal Robert Moruri gave Corruption Watch a tour of the facilities at his school in January, explaining why he keeps one of the blocks – meant for the boys – locked at all times. “These have been leaking since last year [2013], so we lock it to keep the children out for their own safety,” he explained as he unlocked the door.

Large puddles of water fill the floor, while the flushing levers on two of the closed units are not functioning at all. This and a large pile of construction rubble yet to be removed from the field are clear signs of a job not so well done. Another reminder is the set of 10 mobile toilets, hired when it became clear that the contractor would not meet its deadline.

Spokesperson for the education department, Phumla Sekhonyane, assured Corruption Watch that the mobile toilets were sent to the schools to meet the department’s “Constitutional obligation to provide safe ablution facilities for learners.” Inspectors from her department, she said, were sent to all four schools and found that all newly-built toilets were working. A question to Sekhonyane on how much it has cost the department to rent the mobile toilets – which are still at the schools – for more than a year, remains unanswered. She did, however, have this to say about why they are still there: “…the toilets have not been removed from the school [Phiri] because the GDE is in the process of installing booster pumps to be able to absorb the water pressure.”

Whose tender is it anyway?

Go-Luthi Construction and Valuators, a Limpopo-based company that was awarded the contract to build the toilets at all four schools, failed to finish the job in the agreed timeframe, resulting in a second contractor being hired to pick up the pieces.

But Go-Luthi earned over R6-million from the contract – about three quarters of the total value of the project – from the Independent Development Trust (IDT), which was in turn hired by the Gauteng department of infrastructure development (DID) to oversee the project. By the time the IDT and the DID terminated Go-Luthi’s contract because of non-compliance, the company had earned its payout as the contract allowed for progress payments, according to the DID’s Athi Geleba.

“The payments made to the contractor were for work done and no payments were made when the contract was cancelled,” he explained. When Go-Luthi failed to account for the slow progress of the work after several threats of termination, the contract was cancelled and Anix Construction hired. The rest of the money used to complete the project was from a performance guarantee signed between Go-Luthi and the IDT. “When the project was cancelled due to Go-Luthi’s failure to complete the project, the performance guarantee was called by the IDT. Part of the money used to complete the project therefore came from the guarantee that had been called.”

Attempts by Corruption Watch to reach Go-Luthi for verification were unsuccessful.

It is the policy of the Gauteng government that all contracts entered into by its departments at a cost of over R500 000 are administered by the DID. In the case of the school sanitation project, the education department provided the DID with specifications regarding the needs of the schools. The IDT was then brought in by the DID to procure the services of the contractor and direct the project.

Asked whether the awarding of the tender to Go-Luthi, a Limpopo-based company, was not a slap in the face for local construction companies, IDT spokesperson Phasha Makgolane disagreed. “The IDT does not restrict trade of contractors and our bidding is open to all contractors irrespective of locality or geographic location.” Geleba explained further that the contract was an open tender and it was totally up to the IDT to source whichever contractor it saw fit to run the project.

A review of the project will be done, he said, and the reasons for delays by Go-Luthi investigated to avoid the same happening in future. The DID will also conduct a review of the entire project as is the norm for all projects it outsources.

A united front

According to Moruri, there was work done on the toilets at Phiri in January this year, just after schools reopened, when a plumber apparently sub-contracted to the project came to the school to see about leaking pipes attached to the new facilities. “As you can see by the leaking toilets I showed you, he wasn’t of much help.”

He, along with the other principals, educators, community liaison officers hired as part of the construction project, and members of the school governing bodies formed a forum to take a united stand to seek answers.

After naming their group the Sanitation Forum, they reported their concerns to Corruption Watch late in 2013. At the time, the allegations from the group included late or non-payment of community liaison officers (CLOs) employed during the project. Each school had a number of CLOs according to the size of the construction work done at the school.

When Corruption Watch contacted the IDT in October on the issue of non-payments, it acknowledged that it was aware of the problem and said the payments would be issued by Anix. Upon investigating further, Corruption Watch was told in January by a member of the forum who was a CLO that she had still not been paid in full. The IDT has not responded to further questions on this matter. Corruption Watch recently learned however that a majority of the CLOs were paid in December, several weeks after we first approached the IDT about the matter.

Lack of safety features during the construction was also a problem, and one of the Phiri teachers was allegedly injured in July 2012. Mrs Matsatsi Diatshoana fell into an unsecured ditch on the site and was absent from work for two weeks following her accident. While the IDT claimed that corrective steps were taken to ensure safety measures on the site, the department of education said it was not aware of the injury and so advised Diatshoana to contact its human resources unit to deal with the matter. 

Another concern of the Sanitation Forum was the costs of water and electricity consumption during construction – these have fallen on the schools and not the two contractors.

The IDT initially told Corruption Watch that it could not get involved in the matter of utility costs incurred by schools during construction. But as a result of the joint efforts of the forum and a Corruption Watch inquiry into the matter, a settlement agreement has since been arrived at in which the IDT advised that each school receive R20 000 in compensation for using their own funds to pay for services.

The learners at Phiri will have to adopt a wait-and-see approach as the forum established for their best interests continues to seek answers. Corruption Watch has in the past year revealed the high levels of corruption at public schools around the country and would encourage communities to develop groups such as the Sanitation Forum to hold leaders of our country’s public entities responsible.

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Excerpt
Water-related corruption has been reported regularly to Corruption Watch since our launch in January 2012. One of the institutions affected by corruption is Phiri Primary School in Soweto – where children go to the toilet in unsanitary conditions because two contractors, who walked off with millions between them, didn’t finish the job.