File picture: Richard Brian /Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP
Durban - The Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) has lambasted the Umgeni Water board for sending interim board members and other officials on an expensive trip to Las Vegas in the US while the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) faces financial difficulty.

Outa said on Tuesday that it was seeking legal advice on what action it could take after five people from Umgeni Water were believed to be on a luxurious trip to Las Vegas attending the Annual Conference and Exposition 2018 Innovating the Future of Water event, hosted by the American Water Works Association (AWWA).

The conference runs from June 12-14.

“This trip does not reflect the current financial state of DWS and needs ministerial permission,” Yamkela Ntola, Outa’s portfolio manager for water and environment, said.

“Attending a conference of this nature may well be beneficial to the interim board in as far as performing its functions; however, in light of the department’s financial position, why is it necessary that board members attend?” Ntola questioned.

However, Umgeni Water spokesperson Shami Harichunder on Tuesday night confirmed a delegation was on the trip but said it had been budgeted for as it was a conference that the utility sent officials to every year.

Ntola said Outa had been alerted by an anonymous whistle-blower and found that the list of some 9200 conference attendees included nine South Africans. Five of them were from Umgeni Water, including interim board members.

Outa said those on the trip are acting chief executive Thami Hlongwa, board chairperson Ziphozethu Mathenjwa, board member Midiavhathu Tshivhase (who also serves on another board), company secretary Sbusiso Madonsela and senior manager Monica Malungu.

An anonymous source sent The Mercury photographs of board members and a senior manager purportedly taken in Las Vegas this week.

The DWS, which is struggling financially, provides subsidies to Umgeni Water for national projects, although it does not fund operating expenses.

Ntola said Umgeni Water has had to cut its capital expenditure budget over the next few years due to reduced allocations from the national government.

The report of the Auditor- General to the joint committee of inquiry into the functioning of the DWS raised concern about governance at four of the nine water boards, including Umgeni Water.

Austerity measures initiated in recent years by the National Treasury have limited travel, and two letters, written in 2016 by then minister of water and sanitation Nomvula Mokonyane, warned Umgeni Water about travel expenses and Treasury instructions, Ntola said.

“These letters indicate that boards are required to obtain ministerial approval prior to undertaking international travel. According to our information, this was not approved,” Ntola said.

He added that Outa believed such trips resulted in irregular and fruitless expenditure. He said Outa had asked the minister and Parliament to take action against the officials and to hold them personally liable for the costs. “We are seeking legal advice on the way forward, should those in authority not take the necessary steps to hold these individuals to account,” Ntola said.

Umgeni Water’s Harichunder could not immediately provide the cost of the trip.

However, he said the trip was part of the board’s budgeted expenditure and its annual plan that had been submitted to the department.

“The organisation has a strategic objective to position itself among the best-performing water utilities in South Africa, Africa and the world.

“In line with this objective, the organisation interacts and engages with water sector institutions throughout the world and has indeed been visited by various water utilities from Africa and Europe for the purpose of benchmarking against Umgeni Water’s best practices,” Harichunder said.

“Similarly, and when the need arises, senior representatives of Umgeni Water visit such institutions in their countries. Umgeni Water is a learning institution and the interactions it conducts, both in and outside South Africa, are also intended to enhance its work in water treatment to drinking water standards, water resource management and wastewater management,” he said.

Harichunder said all members of the executive, all regional managers and some senior managers had technical knowledge relating to the core business of the board and associated disciplines, including infrastructure planning, water treatment and distribution, and water resource management.

He said the trip was in line with the authority’s objective to share information and knowledge, and to learn about water resource management, infrastructure development, new streams of funding and the future of water.

“It is also in line with the core functions of Umgeni Water.

“The AWWA event has also presented an opportunity to network with thought leaders from global water institutions. This conference provides value to Umgeni Water; therefore, attendance has been occurring annually,” Harichunder said.

He added that departments and divisions as well as the chief executive’s office budgeted annually for travel, provincially, nationally and internationally.

“Umgeni Water complies strictly with budgetary requirements and ensures costs are managed prudently and in the best interests of the organization,” he said.

“Umgeni Water is self-sustaining financially and it does not receive funding from the government or a government department.

“It is also a fully compliant organisation that knows and understands its legal obligations under the Public Finance Act, the Water Services Act and other pertinent legislation,” said Harichunder.

He said the board understood its obligations to the minister of water and sanitation and the office of the director-general.

“Umgeni Water does not compromise its obligations and ensures that they are met in full, as is reflected in the clean audits it has consistently received,” he said.

DWS spokesperson Sputnik Ratau asked for more time to look into the matter before he could comment.

The Mercury