Department says Makhanda reports ‘not true’, then throws Gift of the Givers under municipal bus

Gift of the Givers handing communities in Makhanda bottled water. Image: Gift of the Givers website

The NGO says it was screwed over to the tune of millions, while the water department appears to have officially washed its hands of responsibility.

After disaster relief and charity organisation Gift of the Givers made a decision this week to withdraw their presence from the Eastern Cape town of Makhanda, formerly Grahamstown, the department of water affairs has responded to the criticism against it, but without actually denying any of Gift of the Givers’ allegations.

Instead, they’ve said the NGO should take up their grievances with the local municipality.

Department spokesperson Sputnik Ratau said they had noted media reports that the NGO had withdrawn humanitarian assistance from the town, adding that they fully appreciated “the amount of work done by the Gift of the Givers in the area” and believed that the drilling of boreholes by the NGO would go “a long way in assisting government’s efforts to avert shortage of water for the community of Makhanda”.

The media reports, however, have not focused on government withdrawing assistance, but rather on Gift of the Givers’ unhappiness at apparently being screwed over with broken promises.

Ratau expressed concern at “misinformation” that the department of water and sanitation (DSW) had not given support to the Gift of the Givers in their support relief efforts.

“The media reports have even gone to an extent of insinuating that the department has reneged in its commitments made to the Gift of the Givers and Makanda Local Municipality.”

However, media reports were relying primarily on Gift of the Givers’ own take on the situation.

A statement widely shared by Gift of the Givers founder Dr Imtiaz Sooliman on Thursday lamented that the organisation would be leaving the Makhanda area “as a matter of principle”.

This came after a long battle with government for remuneration for services rendered to the town.

Sooliman said the municipality had requested his organisation’s assistance in providing water supply to Makhanda on February 9, saying that this would be for five days. On February 12, the organisation approached the municipality and emphasised that the extent of the lack of water supply was “far greater than anyone envisaged”.

ALSO READ: Gift of the Givers strikes water in drought-stricken Makhanda

A quote of R23 million was provided from the NGO to the municipality, to which it responded by saying Makhanda had been declared a disaster area in the Government Gazette, meaning that Gift of the Givers would be remunerated based on emergency funding. Gift of the Givers accepted this, Sooliman said, and were assured they would be paid as funds arrive.

Specialist hydrologist Dr Gideon Groenewald was commissioned to drill boreholes, a challenge considering the area’s geography, Sooliman added.

Fifteen boreholes were drilled, water was tested, and filtration systems were designed. In addition, Gift of the Givers delivered water to communities by bottled water and water trucks. At this point, they were spending millions, but were essentially working for free, they said.

The department began engaging with Gift of the Givers, and after more than 50 hours of meetings and 13 weeks of expensive interventions for Makhanda, the DSW still hadn’t provided any information on funding.

“A typical case of Nero fiddles whilst Rome burns,” was how Sooliman described the delay.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for Gift of the Givers came on Freedom Day, when the DSW told them to move their water trucks, “as there was [supposedly] no water crisis in Makhanda,” Sooliman said.

When feedback from the DSW arrived for the NGO, it was not of the positive kind.

They explained that only companies from Grahamstown would be paid for drought interventions, and that a private consultancy firm would receive R1.2 million for borehole-related work. This effectively meant that Gift of the Givers would not be paid for any of the work they had done in Makhanda for the past three months.

The DSW also said that another company in Grahamstown would receive R7 million for boreholes drilled by Gift of the Givers, and that a third company would be paid R1.9 million for electrical work to connect the boreholes that the organisation drilled at Waainek to the water treatment plant.

“This is R10 million of taxpayers’ money handed out freely by the government to people as remuneration for work that Gift of the Givers did,” alleged Sooliman.

“Our hearts are with the people of Makhanda … who waited so patiently for water, but as a matter of principle, we cannot continue,” Sooliman concluded.

The department responded on Thursday that the “reports are not true and the department would like to state that, as per the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) and relevant legislations, the department’s responsibility, in areas classified as disaster areas, is to allocate drought relief funds to the affected municipality”.

Ratau seemed to wash his hands of the details, saying their job had been only to provide the money, and how that was disbursed was not their problem.

“To this end, the Department of Water and Sanitation has lived up to this responsibility by transferring an amount of R22 million to Makanda Local Municipality for the sole purpose of assisting them to deal with drought challenges in the area. The manner in which that money is spent is the responsibility of the concerned municipality and the department does not dictate or interfere with how that money is spent and which service providers are used.

“Therefore, any agreement entered into by Makana Local Municipality and the Gift of the Givers is a matter between the two parties and we hope that whatever differences that they are currently having can be resolved as speedily as possible so that the work that we are all discharged with can continue as fast as possible without any delays, without compromising the municipality’s supply chain processes and adherence to the Municipal Finance Management Act.

“The department of water and sanitation, as mandated in the National Water Act, will continue to support Makana Local Municipality in ensuring water security in the area and other responsibilities such as operation and maintenance of Water Treatment Works, etcetera.”

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