School food contracts awarded to an official's relatives in Limpopo could amount to more than R35-million, writes Rapula Moatshe and Lionel Faull.
Six relatives of an education department official with direct oversight of the school nutrition programme in Limpopo received lucrative contracts to deliver food to schools in the Waterberg district.
The Mail & Guardian revealed last week that close personal and political associates of Julius Malema won contracts worth a combined R40-million after the expelled youth league leader and provincial strongman allegedly intervened on their behalf.
Now a senior department official also stands accused of participating in the feeding frenzy. The six contracts allegedly held by the extended family could be worth a combined R35.6-million.
The Mokopane-based family of Lily Kekana, special projects manager in the department, are building several new properties in and near the town, including what appears to be a large warehouse for stockpiling dry foodstuff – allegedly from the proceeds of the education department's bounty.
Kekana declined to comment, referring all questions to department spokesperson Pat Kgomo.
Her daughter, Mmaseala Kekana, and brother, Mabitsela Sebelebele, both confirmed that they each received a contract but insisted that they had done nothing wrong.
A source who works for the department in the Waterberg region, who identified Kekana's daughter and brother and knows the extended family, said Kekana's aunt, cousin, sister and another brother also received contracts. But attempts to contact the other family members and clarify their relationship with Kekana mostly drew blanks.
The "aunt" could not be reached, although the aunt's daughter – Kekana's "cousin" – flatly denied knowing the "aunt" or Kekana.
She stuck to her denials even when the M&G confronted her with evidence that she and the "aunt" shared the same Mokopane residential address in 2009 and 2010.
The "sister's" attorney said there was "no truth to the information you have". The "brother" flatly denied knowing Kekana.
Kekana has worked in the education department for more than a decade and is now the second-most senior official in special projects, which encompasses school nutrition.
Mmaseala Kekana, her daughter, won a contract worth R7.7-million to deliver food to a secondary school circuit in Mokopane's Mahwelereng township about 6km outside the town. Mmaseala has listed the the same residential address in Mokopane as her mother. In contrast with other service providers – who won contracts to deliver food to rural school circuits several hundred kilometres away – Mmaseala has an easy job.
She said she had followed due procedure in applying, had bid to supply food in all five Limpopo districts and that it did not follow that she had won the tender for Mahwelereng because of her mother. She cited her mother's 10 years' service in the department and said: "We have never got tenders before."
Mmaseala's company was only registered to do business in 2010, although companies who failed to submit 2009 to 2010 financial statements were supposed to be disqualified from the 2011 tender.
A departmental memo seen by the M&G highlights the potential conflict of interest at play when a government official oversees an area in which her family holds a commercial interest.
In the memo, dated November 9 2011, Lily Kekana motivates for exactly 100 pupils to be added to the roll at a school where Mmaseala has been delivering food. The increase gives Mmaseala nearly R60 000 more in annual income.
Both Mmaseala and the department said that the increase was the result of an error by the headmaster.
Kekana's brother, Mabitsela Sebelebele, won a secondary school circuit tender worth R5.68-million.
Sebelebele also lives in Mokopane and one part of his delivery circuit is also less than 10km from his home. Sebelebele said he knew Kekana worked in the education department, but he "had no idea" that she administered the school nutrition programme.
Kekana's "aunt", "cousin" and "sister" also live in Mokopane. Only her supposed other "brother" does not.
The M&G visited three properties belonging to the Kekana family in the Mokopane area, all of which are under construction.
A house on Dudumadisha Street belonging to Sebelebele and another that is being built for Kekana's elderly in-laws in nearby Moshati Valteyn village, are ostentatious. Their multi-pillared front stoeps and floor-to-ceiling glass fronts stand out in their humble surroundings.
Another Mokopane resident who knows the family said they were preparing to consolidate their hold on the school nutrition distribution network in the province by building a large warehouse out of town, away from prying eyes.
The M&G was shown the building in Sandsloot village, 15km from Mokopane on the road to Bakenberg. A nearly completed 30m-long concrete blockhouse with cast-iron metal doors sits on a small knoll.
Sebelebele told the M&G that he was building a tavern, but its stark functionality suggests otherwise.
Kgomo asked for more information and undertook to investigate the allegations further.
The two-year school nutrition tender is drawing to a close and will be advertised again early next year.
Feeding frenzy 'not polite'
The feeding frenzy that erupted over the school nutrition programme in Limpopo meant that the tender was issued not once but twice, before education department staff could be reasonably confident that the selection process had been fair.
According to a well-placed official working in the department at the time, the tender had been adjudicated by mid-December 2010. However, the letters of award lay unsigned on then-department head Benny Boshielo's desk for at least a week.
The official said that Boshielo had "a hunch" that the tender process had been compromised after he was approached by angry service providers claiming to have lost or won and querying why they had not yet been appointed.
These approaches were made despite Boshielo not having signed and released any award letters.
After much debate in the department, the tender was advertised again and a new evaluation committee met in May 2011 at a secret location in Polokwane. Cellphones were confiscated as part of new measures to shore up the integrity of the tender process.
Boshielo left the department shortly after the contracts were finally signed.
Another official in the department, who worked with Boshielo, said the school nutrition tender had prompted his departure.
"Boshielo had hoped that even if there was some corruption, people would at least try to be polite about it. But they were not," said the source.
Boshielo declined to comment this week, saying he had "left department politics behind him to go back into private business" and referred the Mail & Guardian's queries to the department.
The contracts to deliver food to schools are lucrative. A former service provider, Mashudu Ligunuba, and a business mentor to a service provider told the M&G that profit margins averaged between 60% and 70%.