Durban - Underspending of public funds meant for development was tantamount to economic sabotage, and ought to be treated as a crime, Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, said onThursday.
Addressing a Master Builders South Africa conference in Durban, Radebe said a failure to spend money earmarked for infrastructure was proving to be a double whammy for the country.
He explained to the delegates that apart from the missed benefits of the investments, the government was still having to repay loans meant to finance them.
"It means you suffer twice," Radebe said.
He made the comments in response to South African Forum of Civil Engineers Contractors chief executive, Webster Mfebe, who had raised concerns about the failure to act against those responsible for spending on public infrastructure.
"There has got to be consequences when the budget is underspent. It should be a crime if you don't spend as intended. We've got to look at that," Mfebe said.
KwaZulu-Natal government departments failed to spend R605 million as at the end of the 2015-16 financial year.
Leading the pack among departments with huge unspent funds was the Education Department, with R274m, followed by Social Development with R98.9m, Agriculture and Rural Development with R93m, and Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs with R63m.
Radebe agreed with Mfebe, saying: "That is tantamount to economic sabotage."
He said public infrastructure was meant to help communities and provide services. And failure to roll out infrastructure or to spend public funds sometimes led to the service delivery protests, Radebe said.
"The buck stops with the executive authority. They have to hold accounting authorities accountable," Radebe said.
He said the national government had in the past acted against provinces that failed to spend public funds on infrastructure - with Limpopo being one example - by taking over their powers.
He said that laws governing public funds made it an offence not to spend public funds.
"That is a crime under the Public Finance Management Act," Radebe said.
Also speaking at the panel discussion, Master Builders South Africa deputy president, Bonke Simelane, said corruption, fraud and maladministration should be looked into as well.
"Every effort must be made to root it out. We condemn such behaviour," Simelane said.
Municipal Infrastructure Grant chief executive, Themba Dladla, said more interaction was needed between business and municipalities on issues of infrastructure.
"The role of business is critical to support municipalities to improve in those areas," Dladla said, referring to better planning, skills transfer and contracting services.
He said there was a greater need to improve planning amid the shift from building infrastructure to also funding maintenance.
"There is a need for joint funding of strategic infrastructure," he said.
In his earlier address to the conference, Radebe said the government had continued to see the building and development of infrastructure as an important lever to accelerate economic growth.
"We will not walk away from this as under-girding strategy for economic growth.
"Government is on record as noting that the country's public sector capacity to implement major projects is presently inadequate, and that steps must be taken to strengthen planning and implementation capacity at all levels," he said.