Thami Hlongwa leads with innovation and drive

In an animal kingdom, the newly elected Umgeni Water CE Thami Hlongwa would be a cheetah – agile, quiet, and quick to respond

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In an animal kingdom, the newly elected Umgeni Water CE Thami Hlongwa would be a cheetah – agile, quiet, and quick to respond. In a water-scarce country that is striving to provide citizens with basic services, these are the characteristics needed to deliver on the water utility’s mandate.

Hlongwa has humble beginnings with supportive parents believing absolutely in education, but it was his position working at the Durban International Convention Centre toilets that paid for his undergraduate degree. “Never underestimate the respect learnt from doing menial work. I can better understand life in terms of how anyone can avoid becoming a lost cause by merely accepting menial employment,” he says.

A qualified chartered accountant, Hlongwa secured a bursary from Deloittes for his honours qualifications before completing his articles in 2004 and being seconded to their New York offices. At only 27 he was appointed chief financial officer (CFO) for the then Department of Local Government and Traditional Affairs in KwaZulu-Natal.

In July 2013 he became Umgeni Water CFO and managed the KwaZulu-Natal based bulk water service’s R6.9 billion capital expenditure roll-out initiative over the next five years. Effective July 1 2018, he was appointed Chief Executive.

“Working in public service means being able to give back to society at a time when professionalising the government sector is critical to ensuring it can achieve its mandate,” he says.

Under his leadership Hlongwa and his team have introduced the “innovative and enabled growth strategy” to boost turnover and transfer skills within the utility. The innovation means adapting new solutions in a diminished market and encouraging the youth to consider the water industry as a career.

Hlongwa says the past five years have been a significant learning curve for Umgeni Water, specifically in applying apposite cost-effective technology for respective consumers. “Free basic service is not [a] fully understood concept. Installing infrastructure into a predominantly household consumer base that is unwilling, or unable, to pay translates into bad debt. Now Umgeni Water identifies more appropriate solutions when seeking to invest in bulk infrastructure to enable reticulation into rural neighbourhoods—and that means installing services equipped to handle the community requirements rather than applying a generic solution,” he says.

Working with various municipalities, Umgeni Water has instituted a capital expenditure steering committee to ensure infrastructure roll that enables both parties meet their mandates.

Hlongwa says that water is a volumes game and without capacity, water provision fails. Recently, the utility invested R400 million into boosting the Midmar Dam capacity by 125 million litres per day. Comparatively, KwaZulu-Natal North Coast Maphumulo households only consumes 6-12 million litres per day. This means the water investment in the two areas must have significantly different solutions.Hlongwa’s vision includes Umgeni Water as the leading bulk water provider in the province; appropriately matching supply and demand and seeking out solutions reflective of a semi-arid country. Integral to his thinking is moving the industrial consumers on the coast off the grid through the use of desalination plants.

If successful, Umgeni Water can release 220 million litres of water per day to assist South Africa’s long-term economic growth. “As humans, it is vital to accept challenges that remove us from our comfort zones. We need to recognise that even if decisions we make turn out to be the wrong ones, there have still been decisions to provide direction,” he concludes. 

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