A year in the hot seat

2010-06-09 00:00

Skhumbuzo Miya (SM): Time travels fast Mr Premier. It’s more than a year now that you have occupied the top political office in KwaZulu-Natal. How is the hot seat?

Zweli Mkhize (ZM): Time moves fast indeed. There are many things that one wants to achieve in a year, but cannot. It has been a fulfilling year as I did a lot of foundation work for the many changes to be achieved. A lot of planning has been put in place. Now I believe that we have to try to accelerate the implementation of things outlined in the first year. We have charted the way forward.

SM: How did you find the hot seat?

ZM: It’s quite challenging. It’s like something that you do only because somebody has to do the work. Expectations were too huge for available resources.

Whenever you talk to people you become conscious of how much needs to be done, irrespective of the fact that a lot has already been done. High expectations mean a high level of frustration and impatience from the people. This arises because people don’t appreciate how much time is needed for planning before executing service delivery and limitations, and also because of the cons­traints that are involved.

SM: What can you identify as major challenges faced by you in the past year?

ZM: It’s definitely overexpenditure. When we took over from the previous administration there was huge overexpenditure as a result of not budgeting for salary increases and occupational specific dispensations (OSD).

It was estimated that the overexpenditure was going to be between R2,5 billion and R3 billion. This meant that we had to make many drastic changes to establish a culture of saving and re-engineer the way the government works. We had to prioritise services to focus on and rationalise government activities that would save money and reduce expenditure. This means that we had to reduce the size of our public gatherings, advertising, travelling and other costs that were easily manageable.

We had to delay some new appointments and the filling of posts, cut down on consultants, freeze certain posts, terminate some contracts and reschedule capital projects.

SM: How were your cost-cutting measures accepted?

ZM: These generated a lot of complaints from staff and service providers whose livelihoods depend mostly on government tenders.

At one stage, I was informally accused of closing the taps. However, these [cost-cutting measures] actually helped us to cut down on unnecessary expenditure even if it affected people’s livelihoods, because the role of the government is to deliver services as cost-effectively­ as possible. The income that people receive from the government must match the services that the government receives from service providers. People should not be providing mediocre and inefficient services. For the government to pay, there must always be justification for services. This has helped us tighten our procedures to eliminate fraudulent and corrupt transactions. Out of this challenge I believe that there have been a number of achievements.

We have been able to reduce overexpenditure to about R1,7 billion, which is better than our original focus. We were also able to promote integration of departmental services, making the government more efficient.

We have created an image­ of a cleaner government, which is very strong on the prevention of fraud and corruption­.

SM: Were there other major challenges?

ZM: Another challenge was health related. Challenges in health have been the high mortality rate of mothers and babies. This has resulted in the reduction of life expectancy in the province and the country to below 50 years of age. Our contribution to this de- teriorating figure comes from widespread HIV/Aids and tuberculosis. Our figures are worse than any other province because the prevalence of HIV is very high in KZN.

The most important factors exacerbating the problems are poverty, unemployment, illiteracy­ and the general breakdown of family­ fibre. This combination has created­ an intrinsic disintegration of the core of our society.

SM: When you were appointed premier, what was the first thing you wanted to achieve for KwaZulu-Natal?

ZM: You cannot achieve a lot in one year. You can only make long-term plans for long- term achievements. But one of the most important things I wanted to achieve was to create an image of the KwaZulu-Natal government where there is peace and co-operation between political players because this generates enthusiasm for people to work towards one goal. I believe that we have achieved this. We also wanted to create an image of inclusive government.

SM: In the past year we had seen a lot of fighting between the government and opposition parties. What would you say about this relationship?

ZM: Our relationship has been wonderful. We have a mutual respect and trust for each other. We have all agreed that there are issues­ that are of importance to society, such as peace, reconciliation, political tolerance and free political activity. We have made an undertaking to take their [opposition parties’] comments and concerns seriously. We have said that if the idea is good, it doesn’t matter where it originally comes from, we will implement it. I have established a quarterly confidential strategic briefing where we deal with concerns from leaders of opposition parties.

SM: You took office at a crucial time for South Africa and the world because of the economic recession. How did you manage to cope with this crisis?

ZM: It was one of the most challenging issues in the history of the KZN government. Departments had to revise their budgets several­ times. We had to deliver services on very tight budgets. As a result we have learnt to do things differently — to deliver more with less. This has never been the culture of service delivery by the government.

SM: What has upset you most in the past year?

ZM: When people believe that their personal interests, in whatever form, can ever be an excuse for irrational spending by the government.

We have noticed a number of comments in the media by people who believe that the government should consider their interests before those of the poor.

SM: Have there been light moments during your first year in office?

ZM: I will never forget the enthusiastic support displayed by the community when we staged projects such as one-home, one- garden. I also noted the enthusiasm that was shown by volunteers during the house-to- house government surveys, as well as messages of excitement from youths passing training-for-skills development programmes.

I was also excited to get MECs to entertain crowds during the official opening of the Harry Gwala Stadium in Pietermaritzburg.

It was clear to me that the enthusiasm off the pitch did not have much to do with the skills displayed by the parliamentarians on the pitch, but more to do with MECs and MPLs missing the ball or losing their balance. It was unbelievable entertainment, never to be repeated. It was also heart-warming to witness moments of philanthropic support when we rescued people in distress, whether it was an abused child or poor families who were living in collapsing hovels, and seeing their beaming smiles and renewed hope.

SM: Where do you think the government could have done better?

ZM: There are a number of departments which have a basis that needs to be strengthened­.

We need to strengthen mobilisation on the prevention of HIV/Aids; improve agricultural production, as well as rural development; strengthen community support for the improvement of education; and strengthen small and emerging entrepreneurs.

SM: How did you handle the pressure of making 2010 a success in KwaZulu-Natal?

ZM: We have proven beyond doubt that KwaZulu-Natal is ready. A number of projects were delivered on time for the World Cup.

I am impressed by the efficient change­over from Durban International Airport­ to the newly built King Shaka Airport­. Our sports infrastructure was finished on time and it’s spectacular.

We [KZN] are hosting five teams and 50% of the African teams are being hosted in KZN. There is no doubt that KZN is going to be one of the most successful host provinces.

SM: Out of 10, how many points would you give the government for this past year?

ZM: For what we set out to achieve in a year, I believe that we can be rated nine out of 10 [laughing]. The missing point is due to the delay in terms of launching grass-roots structures to deal with issues of health, HIV/ Aids, education and crime.

Sorting these out has been elusive, but we will get there.

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