Life by Maggie’s rules

2009-10-12 00:00

MAGGIE Govender makes her job sound exciting. Govender, KwaZulu-Natal’s MEC for Human Settlements and Public Works, cut her teeth as an activist on housing issues. Sitting with her in the spacious Department of Works building in Prince Alfred Street, there’s a sense that she has come full circle and this is precisely where she wants to be.

In the five months that she has been at the helm, Govender is rooting out corruption and cutting out wasteful expenditure, and she is doing this in innovative ways. She has settled on three planks as the platform for the departments under her stewardship. These are to reduce costs, to do more with less through enhancing efficiency and to adopt new approaches by doing different things to become more effective.

Her bugbear is shoddy workmanship which is costing the state millions of rand. For Govender, the biggest injustice to the poor is the delivery of substandard houses. “Valuable resources aimed at improving the lives of poor people cannot be wasted on those who choose crooked methods,” she says.

More importantly, the MEC has a vision of what she wants to see happening in her departments and listening to her it’s easy to get caught up in her enthusiasm.

Both Govender’s departments deal with multimillion rand contracts and one of her priorities has been to tackle corruption. In the Department of Public Works nine officials were dismissed after being found guilty of having taken bribes for the awarding of contracts. In the Department of Human Settlements a series of court cases have been instituted against those abusing the housing subsidy system. Last Thursday, 12 government officials appeared in the Ladysmith Regional Court for alleged subsidy fraud. Those charged are from various areas in KwaZulu-Natal. Earlier this year, 29 people were convicted in the Pietermaritzburg Magistrate’s Court for fraudulently benefiting from housing subsidies. They were given nine-month suspended sentences on condition that the money is paid back to the government. These cases are a part of sweeping measures in both departments to root out corrupt officials and unscrupulous individuals who abuse the system.

Govender has also been hard at work getting rid of service providers who milk the system and find ways of cutting costs. She says her departments are fed up with getting short-changed by service providers. This is especially true for construction material where they are being charged exorbitant amounts. “This takes away from the actual structure and it takes longer to get projects off the ground and means that fewer houses get built. We will be holding a meeting on the pricing of materials with suppliers. It seems that suppliers have a special price for the government — one that is higher than for the public. We are going to say: ’We understand that you need to make a profit, but please don’t make an obscene profit’,” the MEC added.

On the matter of shoddy workmanship, Govender says there is a loophole because while the main contractor has to be registered with the NHBRC (National Home Builders Registration Council), the regulatory body governing standards for housing construction, there is nothing that stipulates that the subcontractors also have to be registered. As a result, subcontractors are cutting corners by using poor-quality material and workmanship. “They are trying to make a profit at the expense of the poor and the taxpayer. Houses are so badly constructed that they have to be rebuilt and this is all at extra cost. We also have the situation where we get calls from subcontractors who have not been paid by the main contractor.

“All of this has to be tightened up and in the next few months we are going to change contracts and have all this factored in with penalties. We are committed to setting an example. Doing the right thing right the first time will make us more efficient. If we cannot find the time and resources to do our work correctly, where will we find the time and resources to fix mistakes?” Govender added.

On cost saving, her departments have terminated using events management companies and arrange all functions in- house. She said this is proving to be a major area of savings.

Her departments have also stopped using agencies to advertise vacant posts and have done away with holding functions in fancy venues and tents, choosing government-owned venues instead.

Other cost-saving measures include cutting down on travelling and not staying overnight at hotels. Govender has not bought a new vehicle and continues to fly on the national carrier at economy-class rates. Lunches at meetings have been cut and to save even more, a video conferencing system is currently being piloted.

The MEC’s cost-cutting drive has also seen her unearth the talent that exists within the Department of Works. She found in her employ some very skilled carpenters who have started making all the furniture for the department’s offices. The money saved as a result of this project will be used to fund a capacity-building programme for the disabled.

So what inspires Govender and keeps her so motivated and passionate about her work? She gives credit to her management teams and staff who are committed and hard working.

She also feels comfortable with her fellow members of the Executive Council and Premier Zweli Mkhize. “It is an inclusive administration and the premier’s support has been excellent. He also comes from an activist background and I feel that we’re on the same wavelength. He is determined to accelerate delivery, clean up corruption and build a society based on nonracism and inclusion,” Govender said.

She also feels driven by the poverty around her and says that she thought she understood the extent of poverty in the country until she went into the deep rural areas. “This was a real eye-opener and made me realise the desperate need to speed up service delivery.”

However, Govender’s biggest motivator is not letting her mentors down. She grew up as an activist under the guidance of such luminaries as the late Billy Nair, Archie Gumede and current national Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan who were and are all committed to the values of nonracism. “I want to uphold the values and the principles that they taught me in all that I do.”

MAGGIE Govender says there has always been awareness that uniform township housing destroys communities. The provision of housing has to be viewed holistically and that includes addressing social ills and creating stable communities.

Projects on the go include the provision of housing for nonstatutory forces military veterans and currently there is a pilot project that will be the blueprint for providing housing for child-headed households

In keeping with priorities set by the National Department of Human Settlements and the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Programme of Action, there is a concentration on rural housing and the concept being followed is locating houses in the traditional homesteads where people live. One house is provided per homestead and the process is then repeated until all dwellings in all homesteads are covered. This ensures that delivery is spread evenly. Govender says this seems to be working well and people seem comfortable with this initiative.

“The department is also looking at the provision of more rental housing in urban areas as we are finding that people do not want to own houses in the city. They prefer to live in rental accommodation and want houses built in the areas where they come from. It is better for us to accept this,” she adds.

Tied to this, the department’s focus includes facilitating the provision of housing for the middle-income earners, those in the salary bracket of R3 500 to R7 000 by working with banks to ensure that they offer more accessible loan packages.

On KZN’s controversial Slums Clearance Act, Govender believes the legislation is misunderstood. She says the approach is to upgrade informal settlements if the land is safe. However, often informal settle­ments are built on flood plains and then it is obvious that the settlement has to be relocated, as these are disasters waiting to happen.

She says there is an urgent need to take stock of housing requirements. In all of this Govender notes the importance of research in housing and the need to maintain a relationship with academia and researchers working on housing issues. She says there has also been an isolation from the NGO sector. “There is a lot we can learn from them. I would like to try out pilot projects and if they work we can try to implement them on a wider scale. We must also look at people building their own houses. This is already happening on a small scale. We need to display this creativity and flexibility. There must be scope for doing new things. The Department of Human Settlements is looking at establishing an innovation hub in Hammarsdale and intends using this to invite people to put their designs forward. We are trying to encourage innovation and creativity,” she says.

Alternative technology and material to build houses is also part of the mix. Govender says for this to work there has to be community buy-in. At the moment people want the established brick-and- mortar homes. She says the department is thinking of putting up show houses and working together with community leaders as they are aware that using alternative materials gives better types of houses that last longer and have more design possibilities.

Much of what the MEC says appears as a wish list but she has also developed a communication strategy that regularly sends messages to her staff, elicits responses, acts on the responses and sets the direction for the two departments.

Magasvarie (Maggie) Govender grew up in Chatsworth, Durban, after her family was moved from the city area due to the Group Areas Act. She became an activist while she was a student at the University of Durban-Westville. A qualified teacher, Govender was a member of the Natal Indian Congress and an ANC underground operative. She spent several spells in detention and was part of Operation Vula with such operatives as Mo Shaik and Mac Maharaj. Govender also worked in the trade union field and was seen as instrumental in getting the conservative Garment Workers Union to become part of Cosatu. Before becoming an MEC she was a councillor in the Ethekwini Municipality and a lecturer in education management at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Govender is currently working towards a Ph.D. on education management and development policy. Her husband, Sharm Govender, who also comes from an activist background, is a senior staffer at the South African Revenue Service.

MAGGIE Govender is improving, planning and streamlining procedures to get provincial departments to commission the department to carry out projects on their behalf: “In the past few years that has not been the case, so we are trying to speed up service delivery,” Govender says.

At the same time, the department is working on a human resource strategy based on “grow your own timber” among the youth in such areas as plumbing, carpentry and bricklaying, as well as recruiting scarce skills. There are also training programmes for emerging contractors. Here Govender is continuing the work started by her predecessor Lydia Johnson. With the assistance of a group of visiting professionals and building experts from Cuba, emerging contractors are being taken into the heart of the construction industry. They are being taught how to set up, how to register as a contractor and how to apply for tenders. Those who progress up the ladder then become mentors to others who are starting.

This year, the department has also started what is known as a “property incubator programme”. Here candidates will be trained in such skills as property management and carrying out property valuations. The programme is designed according to the SA Qualifications Framework ratings and those who undergo the training will come out with a qualification.

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