THOUGH the story of a minister who spent a night in a shack to understand the plight of the down-trodden sounds like a dream, it also marked a turning point in a country where government arrogance and failure to account to voters remained a stubborn stain on the fabric of the public service.

That's how most South Africans reacted to Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale's well-calculated public relations exercise of spending a night in a shack in Diepsloot recently.

Such an exercise showed an independence of thought from the minister, which was what most expected from a senior ANC politician whose stature needs no validation by President Jacob Zuma or the ruling clique at the ANC head office, Luthuli House.

It showed Sexwale was his own man.

During the visit, Sexwale said: "I am here today on a listening campaign.

"I want to know who you are, what you're doing here, what you want and what made you come here?"

His visits, which included the N2 Gateway in Cape Town, have defined the Zuma administration's trump card so far - it's willingness to account to the voters.

With a housing backlog of more than 2,1milllion and the pressure of the ANC's recent pre-elections promises, Sexwale's task is Herculean.

But Sexwale, one of the ANC bigwigs already mooted as potential successors to Zuma, is a man on a mission.

He has already urged banks and businesses to lend a hand in solving the country's housing problem while rooting out corruption in the awarding of housing contracts and the allocation of houses in municipalities.

During the Human Settlements budget vote in June he told Parliament his department was serious about rooting out corruption within its ranks.

"To ensure we identify and act against criminals, we have strengthened our partnership with the special investigations unit (SIU) and taken stern action against offenders."

He said his department had charged 772 public servants, of whom 554 have been convicted.

Sub-standard work

"More than 1600 acknowledgements of debt have been signed in respect of non-qualifying government employees with a total value of R19,8million and millions have already been collected by the SIU from non-qualifying illegal beneficiaries."

Sexwale said his immediate mission would be hunting down building contractors and companies who continue to build defective RDP houses.

In a recent visit to municipalities in Eastern Cape, where more than 19000 defective houses have to be rebuilt, Sexwale said government had allocated R300million to rectify substandard work on houses in the country.

The Human Settlements Department has set itself the target of building 226000 houses a year.

In June he told Parliament expenditure on housing service delivery had increased from R4,8billion in the 2004-05 financial year to R10,9billion in the last financial year.

"Funds allocated to national pilot projects for this financial year include R400million for the N2 Gateway, R120million for Zanemvula Housing Project and R150million for disaster relief in KwaZulu-Natal.

"Nationally, more than 570 housing projects have been approved and a housing grant of R12,4billion has been allocated for this financial year."

Sexwale also promised to build bigger and better quality houses.

But his ambitions may be frustrated by funding shortfalls that are likely to affect most government departments as the country battles the effects of recession.

"Though the housing grant allocation has been increased over the 2009 MTEF period, we remind you once again that the previous studies by the department concluded that continuing with the current trend in the housing budget would lead to a funding shortfall of R102billion in 2012, which could increase to R253billion by 2016. This is of great concern," Sexwale said.

"We also remain concerned about houses that are reportedly standing empty."

Sexwale is not only Zuma's political ally in the internecine struggle for power in the ANC, he is also his points- man on service delivery, which will be key to whether Zuma remains the man of the people at the end of his term.