Department of Public Works: Keeping up the good work

On January 15th, Mr Mziwonke Dlabantu took on the role of Director General for South Africa’s Department of Public Works. The Honourable Minister of Public Works Mr Thulas Nxesi extended a warm welcome to the incoming Mr Dlebantu, saying that he is confident his appointment will help bring stability to the Top and Senior Management echelons of the Department. “His leadership will also play a central role in steering the Department towards compliance, improved performance and good corporate governance,” said the Minister.

Dopw02Mr Dlabantu replaces the former acting director-general, Ms Mandisa Fatyela-Lindie and faces an exciting, if enormous task ahead, as the self-professed “Handy Man” of the State.

The Department of Public Works (DPW) in fact, takes its mandate from the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (Act No 108 of 1996) and other subsequent acts, by which it is bound to be the custodian and manager of all national governments’ fixed assets, for which other legislation does not make another department or institution responsible.

As such, the department is responsible for the determination of accommodation requirements, rendering expert built environment services to client departments and the acquisition, maintenance and disposal of such assets – effectively qualifying the “Handy Man” expression.

The department is acutely aware and committed to ensuring that the provision of accommodation needs to meet the operational, technical and social needs of the population and government and is equally

cognisant of the challenges associated with this. In July 2006, the DPW, in recognition of the poor state of public assets, developed a National Infrastructure Maintenance Strategy (NIMS), which was subsequently approved by the Cabinet. The NIMS aims to ensure that infrastructure is adequately maintained and operated in a way that effectively allows social and economic growth, through new employment opportunities.

A significant part of its role has been to oversee the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), one of the government’s top priorities, aimed at delivering additional employment and training opportunities.

The EPWP was officially announced by President Mbeki, during his State of the Nation Address in February 2003. At its heart was the need to meet head-on the problem of unemployment in South Africa, which it was felt, was significantly affected by structural issues.

In September of 2003, it was determined that 4.6 million people were classified as unemployed in terms of the strict definition, while that figure rose to 8.3 million in relation to the broader definition. Of course unemployment has an impact on poverty, crime and other social problems, making the EPWP an important initiative to help the nation develop.

Dopw01Within its framework, the EPWP aims to increase economic growth by creating a number of new jobs each year that will exceed the number of new entrants into the job market, while at the same time also helping to improve the education system by providing skills training that can be put to good use within the employment market.

With such a challenge, the DPW has introduced a number of programmes aimed at meeting its mandate.

The National Infrastructure Maintenance Strategy was formulated to address South Africa’s need for modernised infrastructure across all areas. In November 2005, the Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka acknowledged the difficulty but necessity for improvements: “…looking after both old and new infrastructure is a challenge and an opportunity… we have tended not to put maintenance high on the agenda…not only are we putting it high on the agenda now…we can launch it as an industry in its own right.”

The department was equally quick to appreciate the opportunities that could be created through infrastructure improvements and maintenance, stating publicly:

Infrastructure, in the form of public buildings, roads, water and sewerage systems, electricity and other services, supports quality of life and is the foundation of a healthy economy. The blueprint for a new South African Economy, the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (ASGISA), places maintenance high on the developmental agenda as a key to sustainable development and economic growth.

The National Infrastructure Maintenance Strategy, a co-ordinated programme of actions is an essential part of government’s vision of delivering infrastructure services to all. Simultaneous infrastructure investment and maintenance will not only improve infrastructure performance and underpin services sustainability, but will also contribute significantly towards economic growth and add long term jobs. The maintenance sector forms an integral part of South Africa’s total construction delivery capability.

Rapid growth of the maintenance sector, with its inherent labour intensity, will stimulate sustained job creation, skills development and broad-based black economic empowerment.

Another initiative seen as vital to the EPWP is the National School Build Programme, which recently received support from Mr Nxesi, who said that in a very real sense the School Infrastructure Programme (SIP) 13: the National School Build Programme gives concrete expression to the government’s commitment to prioritise education.

Speaking personally, as someone who has spent many years in education – as a practicing teacher and as a trade unionist – I can only applaud the scale and ambition of SIP 13 which seeks to: replace inappropriate school buildings; address backlogs of schools and classrooms; provide basic services, as well as ensuring access to libraries, information and communications technology (ICT), laboratories and sports facilities,” explained the Minister.

He also revealed that while the building of safe and effective modern schools is an end in itself, SIP 13 forms part of a much larger national infrastructure roll-out plan which seeks to achieve a number of objectives, among them – to use infrastructure spending to drive inclusive economic growth and social development – while in turn driving job creation and skills development.

I would argue that the infrastructure roll-out is both a challenge and also constitutes a massive opportunity for transformation. Let me explain. Challenges include working smarter, faster and in a coordinated way – between departments and between levels of government to get the job done. We have to tackle the issue of ineffective procurement processes, over-pricing and fraud and corruption – and we have to work with the construction sector to achieve this.

In all that we do, we have to be clear that we are not simply building infrastructure for its own sake; that this is also a strategy for driving economic growth and social development, and that this includes job creation, skills development and empowerment of emerging and female contractors and professionals,” he added.

Of course programmes like this are the tip of the iceberg and the department is responsible for countless other programmes, with projects delegated to localised government.

The national government’s Budget for 2012 set out a number of investments across a three-year period including: R9.5 billion set aside for the Economic Competitiveness and Support Package, which included R2.3 billion for dedicated special economic zones; R6.2 billion for job creation; R3 billion for equalisation of subsidies to no fee schools and expansion of access to Grade R; R1 billion for a National Health Insurance Pilot project; R1.4 billion for Early Childhood Development; R4 billion for the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa for coaches, as the start of a programme to replace the current fleet; R1 billion for Signalling and depot infrastructure related to this new rail transport programme; R4.7 billion for Electricity demand side management grant: Eskom for the installation of solar water geysers; R1.8 billion for municipal water infrastructure and R3.9 billion for upgrading informal settlements.

When assessing these figures, it quickly becomes apparent just how high a priority infrastructure is given – and within that concern, the role of the DPW.

Mr Dlabantu’s task is considerable and will only be truly measurable in time, as the department strives to create a lasting legacy of prosperity.