Limpopo’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Department has been slated for wasting taxpayers’ money to the tune of R197 million on various dodgy items while failing to spend R98 million on service targets that were budgeted for.
MEC Thabo Mokone, head of department (HOD) Ramatsimele Jacquiline Maisela, and their team of officials recently reappeared before the provincial Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) to explain the mismanagement of their annual budget.
They first appeared before the committee in February but were sent back to set their house in order and to come back later and account. During the recent public hearing, acting Scopa chairperson Jerry Maseko lambasted the department for failing to organise their paperwork so that the committee could easily access certain information.
“The authenticity of the information you are giving has more questions than answers. You need to get us condonation letters from the Treasury because your reports clearly say that ‘this one has been condoned, condoned, and condoned,’ but when we check, those letters of condonation have been found wanting,” said Maseko.
Not only did the department underspend, but it also displayed a culture of misspending millions on items that were not budgeted for over a number of financial years. It was also found that the department inflated bonuses for officials and tried to explain the payments away as miscalculations within their finance section.
Mokone claimed there was a misunderstanding of the word “condoned.”
“The explanation that [the HOD] gave me was that ‘I was under the impression that as we communicate with the Treasury, they have actually condoned.’ It is not ‘condoned.’ She says, ‘It’s a write-off. They have written off.’ It’s a matter of language. I think she must be able to deal with that,” said Mokone.
Maisela said that they underspent because of delays in finalising procurement processes, late approval of business plans, and tender cancellations, negatively affecting thousands of farmers.
The under-expenditure also resulted in 1 235 farmers who were due to benefit from fertiliser support being unable to farm.
“We realise that the failure of the plans included that we underestimated the period required for procurement of infrastructure, including the planning phase thereof. The planning was not adequately done because of the limited capacity within the engineering unit wherein we had some vacancies,” said Maisela.
On consequence management, she reported that internal processes were instituted against officials who were identified in some of the gaps that compromised service delivery.
“Through the labour relations processes, the responsible officials were written letters to make representations why disciplinary action should not be taken against them. They have since made representations. At the moment, labour relations is doing analyses of those representations, checking and verifying the information with the relevant units so that an informed decision can be made,” she said.
Unhappy with the explanation, committee member Kgolane Phala took Mokone and Maisela through their track of under-expenditure dating back to the 2020/2021 financial year, which recurred in the 2021/2022 financial year, stating that there were many contradictions in their responses.
“Our people were robbed because there was money meant to assist them, but they did not get any assistance. In her letters, the HOD is asking people whether she can take action against them. In relation to under-expenditure, irregular expenditure, and fruitless and wasteful expenditure, that still happens. We want action on the officials who committed the thing.
“There must also be action on two other people, which are the chief financial officer and the accounting officer. The Public Finance Management Act expects that. When we talk about irregular expenditure, it will be clear that the HOD is in the middle of things. It is the same with fruitless and wasteful expenditure,” Phala said.
Maisela explained that Mokone was still considering what action to take against her.
“If you look, most of the actions taken, even on issues recurring from 2017/18, are taking action now in 2023. If it wasn’t for this committee, nothing would be happening. Honourable Mokone, there is nowhere that it’s written that you must wait for the Scopa hearing. The law says once it has happened in that financial year, you must act at that time. It is cumulative.
“The law says take effective and appropriate steps, not that you should take them to a training workshop in Pretoria. I want the HOD to take us through the accumulated R197 million. What action has been taken against the officials?” said Phala.
Scopa is expected to hold another hearing with the department, where Mokone and Maisela will have to demonstrate what action they took against officials responsible for the department losing money.