20-year quantum leap

2014-01-05 14:01

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The year, 2014, is an important political one for South Africa as it marks 20 years of democracy.

There will be a fiercely contested general election this year in which the ANC expects voters to judge it on its service delivery track record with issues such as housing, sanitation, job creation and education at the top of the agenda.

The party’s 20-year performance report, set for release soon, will showcase what it has done.

In November, investment bank Goldman Sachs released its report, 20 years of freedom, in which it details how far the country has come.

A decent job

Precious Mbhele believes that without employment equity legislation, she would not have progressed as far as she has in her career as a civil engineer.

The 39-year-old mother of two is an area engineer for the north and central regions of the eThekwini Municipality’s water and waste department.

Mbhele, a civil engineering graduate from the then Technikon Natal, is responsible for the sewerage system for the densely populated CBD and central suburbs.

She is also responsible for the city’s northern area with its mushrooming housing estates, and almost daily commercial and industrial expansion.

Mbhele is one of the 4.1?million new employees who, according to the Goldman Sachs report, joined the South African workforce over the past 20 years.

She is also part of the rapidly growing black middle class, which has more than doubled between 1993 and 2008.

“There are no two ways about it, if there had not been employment equity and other legislation transforming South Africa, I would never have had this opportunity,” she says.

“It was a case of being the right person in the right place at the right time. I guess people also saw something in me. The truth is that I never imagined I would have gotten this far. I am incredibly blessed.”

Mbhele reports directly to the head of sewerage and has five team leaders reporting to her.

She signs off on the work of contractors, surveyors and consultants working on projects with budgets well in excess of R20?million.

She doesn’t do lots of on-site work these days, but isn’t scared of putting on boots, overalls and a helmet and climbing into a manhole.

And she says while most people would find her job “a bit disgusting”, she’s not fazed. “It’s an essential job that has to be done,” she says.

“I am very happy to be doing it. It is a wonderful career.”

After graduating in 1999, Mbhele worked for construction companies as a civil engineer before joining consultants.

She joined the city as an engineer “at a very low level” in 2004 and worked her way up.

She’s not eyeing her boss’ job (yet) but believes the “sky is the only ceiling”.

She is studying further through the city’s employee bursary programme.

She describes life in leafy Hillcrest with engineer husband Siboniso and children Sibulelo (16) and Niso (10) as “a totally different world” from Pietermaritzburg’s Imbali township, where she grew up.

She credits her technical drawing teacher at Imbali’s Zibukezulu High School for her career.

“I’m so happy to be able to thank her. It was Mrs Nkomonde who advised us about careers in draughting and engineering.”

– Paddy Harper

Surviving old age

She gets just R1?270 a month to support 13 people, which seems like astonishingly little; but Sylvia Mbethe is certain that without her oldage grant, she and her family “would probably be dead from starvation by now”.

Mbethe (77) started receiving a grant in 1996 after retiring from her job as a domestic worker.

Back in 1994 when the ANC came to power, just 2.4?million people received social grants of any sort.

But today, according to the Goldman Sachs report, this number has climbed to 16.1?million – and the total percentage of households that receive at least one social grant has climbed from 30% to 44% in the same period.

The grant she receives every month allows her to support six children and six grandchildren at her home in Bhongweni, East London.

Four of her grandchildren also receive grants, which helps with school fees and other necessities.

A little goes a long way.

Mbethe says: “I have managed to buy myself furniture, feed my children and send them to school through this money.

We are managing though it is not enough, but I don’t want to think what life could have been without this grant.”

In the report, Goldman Sachs describes social grants as representing “a vital safety net and cushion for the poor”, which “supports their ability to acquire basic needs”.

Pensioners and children are the country’s major grant beneficiaries, a trend Goldman Sachs predicts will hold steady through to 2016.

The report also notes that the combination of “real wage inflation of around 3% per annum and social grants have boosted consumer expenditure”. – Lubabalo Ngcukana

Water for most

JabulaniMasilela’s greatest stress in life was getting water for his household.

Every day for six years, Masilela either had to wake up very early to make it to the front of a queue or arrive early in the afternoon to fill up water containers for his family of six.

Masilela (38) and other residents of Zola section in Matsulu near Nelspruit collected water from two municipal water pumps about 400m from his house.

The queues were long and the supply was erratic. The water was only available between 5am and 8am, and again from 5pm to 8pm.

“It was a very stressful life. When you’re sleeping you’re thinking about waking up early in the morning to get water,” says Masilela.

“You were never sure that by standing in the queue you would fill up your containers before the water is cut off?...?the queues were just too long. Then you had to load them on to a wheelbarrow to push them home.”

But things have changed in Zola.

By 2008, the Mbombela municipality connected water to the residents’ houses at a cost of R6.4?million from the municipal infrastructure grant.

The Goldman Sachs report notes that by 1996, 60.8% of households had access to water, and that number increased to 73.4% in 2011.

Now, 91% of households have access to piped or tap water in dwellings, either on-site or off-site, against 56% in 2002.

Although water supply is still erratic in Zola, still only available for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, Masilela does not have to rush to be in front in the queue. Instead, he waits for the water to come directly to his house. “It’s a whole lot better now, it’s a breath of fresh air,” he says. – Sizwe sama Yende

20 years after democracy

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