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'Go to court and I'll meet you there': Sisulu ready to defend R65m deployment of Cuban engineers

Minister of water and sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu said she was ready to defend in court her decision to deploy Cuban engineers.
Minister of water and sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu said she was ready to defend in court her decision to deploy Cuban engineers.
Image: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS

The controversial deployment of Cuban engineers to help with SA's water crisis at a cost of R65m became the subject of intense debate in the National Assembly on Tuesday.

This as water and sanitation minster Lindiwe Sisulu tabled her medium-term budget.   

DA MP Leonard Basson rejected the budget, and questioned Sisulu's insistence in keeping the Cuban engineers in the country despite high unemployment rates and public outcry.

“Your government made job creation one of its priorities. Despite this, you appoint 24 unaccredited Cuban engineers. Minister, your lame excuse that very few of our engineers can do the work in rural areas holds no water.

“The deployment of Cuban engineers has nothing to do with reluctance of local engineers nor has anything to do with expertise. This is another money-looting scheme by the ANC,” said Basson.

Trade union Solidarity had taken the matter to court, asking that the deployment be suspended. As part of their case, they proposed a list of 132 local engineers who said they could do the work.

Sisulu did not hesitate to defend her decision, which she said she was also ready to defend in court.

“Honourable Basson, you and Solidarity ... can go to court and I will meet you there. And I want to tell you that this relationship with Cuba and ourselves is cast in stone. It's not about whether you like it. There is a bilateral Cuba-South Africa relationship which is binding to all of us, including yourselves. So go to court and I will find you there,” she said.

While many MPs expressed concern at the country's ability to provide access to clean water and sanitation, Sisulu admitted the department grappled with unending challenges — but she said efforts to combat the water crisis were under way.

Households with access to sanitation have increased from 49% in 1996 to 83% in 2018, according to Stats SA. 

“However, there are still about 2.8 million households, which is 17% of households, without improved sanitation services. 

We have no water in this country, the level we would like to have. We are the 33rd driest country in the world ...
Water and sanitation minister Lindiwe Sisulu

“We have no water in this country ... We are the 33rd driest country in the world. What we are trying to do now is use all the resources available to us to provide our people with water,” she said.

Among other challenges, Sisulu said, her department grappled with unplanned rapid urbanisation, which was putting strain on already heavily burdened infrastructure. There was also inadequate investment in operation and maintenance, and theft of cable and water infrastructure.

“Our waste water treatment plants are regularly vandalised by criminal elements that often render our plants inoperable. We are now required to increase our security and declare essential dam security points. We will also lobby for maximum penalties for all who criminally interrupt our work,” said Sisulu.

She revealed that the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA) had raised just over R15bn in capital markets to continue construction of the Lesotho Highlands water project.   

“We have the resources, we have the guarantees and now we can assure you that we will be hard at work to provide water and sanitation,” said Sisulu.

The non-payment of water bills by municipalities was another area giving Sisulu a headache.  

“At the moment, the money lost through non-payment to our water boards by municipalities stands at R12.6bn as at March 2021. In a recent study we discovered that about 41% of our municipal water is non-revenue, which means water is not being billed or paid for and we are losing the value of about R9.9bn down the drain, either because of physical losses and leakage from server connections, or municipalities are not paying their debt, or municipalities are not collecting from our users.

“That leaves us as a department so much poorer to perform our responsibilities and those owed and lost billions could have been put to good use in maintaining infrastructure,” she said. 

The department said it would ensure that water tariffs were cost effective to enable municipalities to pay their debts.