Water and Sanitation Minister Gugile Nkwinti conceded to MPs that the department he had inherited earlier this year from Nomvula Mokonyane is "a mess".
At a briefing on the department's budget and strategic plan, presented to the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Water and Sanitation on Wednesday, MPs grilled officials and the minister on how they were going to put things right in a "collapsed department".
Nkwinti assured MPs that he had a plan to deal with the problems.
"Let’s not be too locked in the past. We have a very difficult situation, let’s correct it. I have got only 12 months here. I am going to deal with it. We have to try to do the best we can to sweep the floor of the debris," Nkwinti said.
Nkwinti took over the ailing department this year from Mokonyane, who City Press reports has been accused of irregular actions while she was minister.
One of the many problems the bankrupt department faced was a massive R11.2bn debt because municipalities, water boards, companies and parastatals had not paid for the water they used.
Departmental officials told MPs that they had met National Treasury last week to ask for help in bailing them out of the massive debt.
'Budget had been mismanaged'
Paul Nel, acting chief financial officer of the department’s water trading section, told MPs: "We need help from Treasury. This amount is not in our budget. It is physically impossible to pay for this without assistance. I think they understand that."
Of the R11.2bn owed to the department, R2.5bn was owed by entities likes Sasol, Eskom and mining companies; R4.2bn was owed directly by municipalities; and R3.6bn was owed by water boards.
There were 160 municipalities that had not paid a cent of their water bills.
Another problem was the lack of staff. The department had 6 819 posts, but 1 016 were vacant. The previous minister had placed a moratorium on filling posts – which Nkwinti has since lifted.
Nkwinti said South Africa was a water-scarce country, but 35% of all the water the department supplied to municipalities was lost to leaks.
Although the department had started a programme to fix this, it believed the Department of Cooperative Governance ought to help with the programme, as the bulk of the leaks were the result of poor municipal infrastructure, not departmental infrastructure.
MPs told the minister that they were particularly concerned that the same officials who had mismanaged last year’s budget, would be managing the 2018/19 budget.
IFP MP Patrick Chauke said: "We cannot allow a situation again, where the department reaches 28% of its targets and the entire budget is finished. The committee has to resort to launching an inquiry, because of the manner in which the budget had been mismanaged."
'We are dealing with a department that has collapsed'
Chauke said a number of deputy directors general in the department had been suspended earlier for "serious mismanagement", but had returned to work, without any charges being laid against them.
"One overspent by more than R400m; that person is back in office… We feel very strongly that some people are not to be trusted to work with public money. My plea is, appoint the right people to the right positions. We are dealing with a department that has collapsed. The capacity in that department is zero," Chauke said.
Nkwinti said South African labour law did not allow officials simply to be fired, but that a process had to be followed.
Committee chairperson Lulu Johnson said MPs wanted to support the department in sorting out the problems. However, they were worried about maladministration and corruption. He said it appeared that consultants working on departmental projects applied only for the big jobs of R500m or more.
"Who knows if the department is pushing that so they can get kickbacks?" Johnson said.
The Water and Sanitation Committee and the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) have finalised the terms of reference for the joint inquiry into the maladministration of the department, but still needed to set a date for the inquiry to begin.