A country of hand-outs

2018-10-08 11:24
Pietermaritzburg-born Thami Hlongwa, who is the chief executive officer of Umgeni Water, says that South African poverty is often exaggerated for political reasons.

Pietermaritzburg-born Thami Hlongwa, who is the chief executive officer of Umgeni Water, says that South African poverty is often exaggerated for political reasons. (Nokuthula Ntuli)

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Leaders who try to “score political points” by exaggerating poverty are crippling South Africa’s potential by perpetuating the culture of over-reliance on free services and social grants from government.

This was the sentiment shared by the chief executive officer of Umgeni Water, Thami Hlongwa, who recently sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Weekend Witness.

“We have a problem of leaders who are trying to score political points by exaggerating poverty but they don’t realise that they are creating an incapable state where people don’t have to work because everything is free,” he said.

A charted accountant by profession, Hlongwa joined Umgeni Water as a chief financial officer in 2013. He took over the reins of running the state-owned company last year but was appointed permanently in July.

He grew up from humble beginnings in Dambuza but said even in their struggle, the community he grew up with knew that they were not entitled to anything from government. “We used to have two communal taps but without fail — after standing in the queues there — a municipal clerk would come and collect R5 from every home every month. Today people have water in their houses but they are not paying,” he said.

He said the democratic dispensation has come with a problem of exaggerating poverty where people were almost encouraged to say “government shall provide”.

Hlongwa said there were people refusing to pay for services such as water, and there were those who are claiming to be indigents even though they could afford it. He said some of the pensioners who were raising their grandchildren received maintenance for them from the parents yet claimed to be indigents.

The CEO said it required a bit of research on the part of the municipalities when the gogos and other residents applied for free services.

“You just need to get the ID numbers of the parents of those kids living with the gogo to establish where they are employed so that you can find out how much they earn.

“Once you have that information you can go to the gogo — as an owner of the household — to negotiate a fixed tariff that she can pay instead of just assuming that she is indigent because of where she lives,” said Hlongwa.

He said even for those who were not receiving maintenance, most black professionals still paid “black tax” to support their extended families living in the so-called indigent areas.

“If you go to these people’s houses they all have DStv. I’ve been there so I know what I’m talking about. They also have cellphones and they are buying data but they want free services.”

Hlongwa said the culture of dependency on government was encouraged by politicians, therefore he believed it should be criminal for them to make populist and irresponsible statements such as promising people free services when campaigning for elections.

“I have a problem with the opposition [parties] as well. Some of their statements on social welfare issues are not helping grow the country because they are forcing the ruling party to keep dishing out these things.”

He said South Africa was being milked to such an extent that it worried him there might come a period where it would be difficult to pay out pensions for some people when they retire.

“The biggest problem is that those who are following us are falling into a trap of free things so our pension won’t be cash-backed because there won’t be enough people working at that time to contribute to the pension fund.”

Hlongwa said the perpetuation of the over-reliance on social welfare got worse with every election. He said this was not only hitting the fiscus hard but would hinder future development.

“The question we need to start asking is: if your pension funds are poor, who is going to fund infrastructure? ... You need the PICs, Old Mutuals and Sanlams of this world because they are able to fund infrastructure as they can afford to invest in long-dated papers where they know they are only going to get their money 10 years down the line.”

Hlongwa — a man of many talents

Hlongwa is a man of many skills as he readily swops his sharp business suits for spinning the decks at social gatherings.

At age 38, he is also a fully-trained sangoma and described himself as a deeply traditional man. The father of two said having his daughters has made him more responsible.

“I’m not the speedster that I was before I became a father … I even keep a safe following distance now and I get very irritated if someone is not keeping it so I start flashing hazards warning them to back off,” he said with a laugh.

During his days at the University of Natal, Hlongwa worked part-time as a toilet cleaner at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli ICC and Durban Exhibition Centre to raise money for tuition fees.

“My humble beginnings taught me to never take anything for granted and to work hard for anything that I want. So when I was in high school I used to sell tripe in the community,” he said.

‘Land debate should include skills development’

Hlongwa believes that the discussion on land expropriation should also include human capital development.

“We are saying nothing about education. We are saying nothing about creating future employment opportunities and industrialisation. All of us are focused on expropriation without compensation.”

He said the debates should include the improvement of the quality of education and how to ensure that agricultural land remained productive after expropriation.

He said there should be investments directed to agricultural and construction training centres.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  pmb people

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