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Recent reports outlining the vastness of "irregular"
and "fruitless and wasteful" expenditure incurred by state departments
left the public numb.
According to media reports the Auditor-General (AG) of South
Africa recently announced in Parliament that the state's "fruitless and
wasteful expenditure" defined as "expenditure which was made in vain
and would have been avoided had reasonable care been exercised" had
increased by 200%, from just under R1bn in the previous financial year to R2.5bn.
This waste of valuable resources also manifested in the
audited financial statements of the Department of Basic Education (DBE).
According to the AG's report, in the DBE's 2017/18 annual report, the DBE's "irregular
expenditure" – essentially expenditure incurred in contravention of
legislation – amounted close to R154.478m in the 2017/18 financial year. This,
according to the AG's report, appears to be mainly due to supply chain
processes not being followed.
Central to this frustration is the fact that the frail chain
of accountability in service delivery of a crucial aspect of access to basic
education, namely infrastructure, appears to be a major recurring hindrance.
The Financial and Fiscal Commission (the FFC) briefed the Portfolio Committee
on Basic Education on 9 October and emphasised the lack of service delivery
performance of the Accelerated School Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (Asidi).
The FFC is constitutionally mandated to make recommendations on financial and
fiscal matters of all organs of state.
The Asidi was introduced in 2011/12 to address the dire
condition of public school infrastructure by allocating funds for this purpose.
The initiative aimed to upgrade public schools to meet the 2013 Minimum Uniform
Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure (Infrastructure Norms and
Standards), which also provides deadlines for the provision of basic services
such as water, electricity and sanitation to public schools and eliminating
school infrastructure backlogs.
The school infrastructure backlog grant, an indirect grant,
was specifically created to fund the Asidi and is spent by the DBE on behalf of
the provincial education departments. The grant however, was only meant to be a
temporary "high impact" intervention grant according to the FFC. One
would therefore assume its spending would have reflected this.
Yet, as the FFC pointed out, the spending of the grant –
despite improving in 2017/18 – had been poor, with an average spending
performance of only 66% since 2011. This – coupled with the astonishing lack of
progress on Asidi targets, such as the fact that only 189 "inappropriate
schools" of the initial 510 targeted had been replaced by March 2018 –
cannot simply be accepted by Parliament.
A key recurring problem appears to be the lack of oversight
in the accountability chain. As the FFC pointed out, the Asidi school projects
are managed by two implementing agents – namely the Development Bank of Southern
Africa and Eskom. They in turn appoint subcontractors, who again appoint small,
medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) to implement the projects. The chain of
accountability is weak, with little oversight.
Critical weaknesses, according to the FFC's briefing,
include "poor communication and information sharing", lack of an "effective
monitoring system of service providers" and importantly, "disincentives
related to the implementing agents not being the owner of the project".
The FFC also noted that school infrastructure projects at
provincial level are further compromised by the fact that the planning,
budgeting and implementation thereof is carried out by different departments
and implementing agents – creating further lack of oversight and control. However,
the delivery of proper school infrastructure remains the ultimate
responsibility of the DBE, who has to account for it.
This fact was confirmed by the Eastern Cape High Court in Bhisho
in July 2018, in the matter of Equal Education and Amatolaville Primary School
v the Minister of Basic Education and Others. In this matter, Regulation
4(5)(a) of the Infrastructure Norms and Standards was, among others, declared
unconstitutional as it essentially provided a loophole of accountability for
the DBE by making implementation of the Infrastructure Norms and Standards
subject to the resources and co-operation of other governmental departments.
This recurring theme of underperformance of the grant and
failure to meet infrastructure targets largely due to lack of oversight in the
accountability chain, was also emphasised by the FFC's briefing to the
Portfolio Committee on Basic Education in October 2017. The FFC emphasised that
R3.68bn of the grant was unspent from 2011/12 to 2016/17, and more importantly,
that the unspent amount of 30% of the total grant allocation "implies
there is enough money available in the system to address the historical
backlogs in school infrastructure".
The FFC emphasised that an amount of R263m in "irregular
expenditure" was reported by the DBE for 2016/17, and, in most cases, this
relates to implementing agents appointed to roll out Asidi projects not following
proper procurement processes.
In the FFC's briefing of October 2018, it strongly advised
that the DBE should develop "clear performance evaluation frameworks"
for its grants with specific performance indicators that one can monitor and
that these indicators should be based on "quality, cost and time factors".
Furthermore, more stringent penalties for underperforming implementing agents
were also recommended, as per previous years.
These FFC recommendations are practical measures that should
be reasonably easy to design and implement without much delay. There have been
proposals, such as the much-debated Public Audit Amendment Bill (PAA Bill),
which might in the future see the AG issue a certificate of debt and recovering
this loss directly from a responsible party. However, there are means to
address these systemic flaws now, such as the FFC's recommendations.
The South African public and Parliament cannot simply accept
that there are not enough resources to ensure safe schools, especially where
funds are clearly wasted. Infrastructure and safe schools form an integral part
of the right to education, provided for in Section 29 of the Constitution.
Without safe schools, adequate sanitation and clean water
this constitutional right would mean very little in reality and the DBE has the
ultimate constitutional responsibility to give effect thereto. Parliament
therefore must ensure the DBE enforces accountability and closes these glaring
loopholes by applying the FFC's recommendations in the delivery of school
infrastructure. We cannot simply accept this situation.
- Christine Botha is a legal officer at the Centre for
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