/ 25 April 2008

Defence heads roll

The top three officials responsible for procurement at the department of defence have been placed on leave amid allegations of tender irregularities and an investigation by the inspector general of defence.

Defence secretary January Masilela confirmed that procurement chief Bruce Ramfolo is on leave while the terms of his departure are finalised. The chief director in the department, Peter Lebelo, and Colonel Amos Skhosana, who heads the Central Procurement Service Centre at Thaba Tshwane, have also been told not to return to their desks pending the finalisation of the investigation.

‘I have put them on leave while the inspector general investigates,” he told the Mail & Guardian.

But Masilela denied that Ramfolo’s departure from the department was related to the investigation, saying ‘his job was readvertised and he decided not to apply. He is on leave awaiting his exit mechanism.”

Masilela also refused to confirm or deny a report in Beeld that linked the effective suspension of the three to a long-running controversy over contracts awarded for flights supplying South African troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Sudan, and a more recent tender for asset tracking systems.

‘It’s all speculation,” he said. ‘You will have to wait and trust our ­processes.”

Both Lebelo and Skhosana refused to discuss the investigation, saying they were bound by regulations that forbid them from communicating with the media.

Defence contractors believe the shake-up is linked to the flights and possibly wider tender-rigging. Three suppliers interviewed by the M&G said there was widespread unhappiness about tender processes — particularly, but not solely, for lucrative air charter services.

The vast majority of these flights are conducted by Adajet Aviation (formerly Adagold), a Johannesburg firm with Australian roots controlled by former African National Congress intelligence operative Lawrence Pietersen and his business partner Shaun Roseveare.

This is not the first time they have been embroiled in controversy over defence department tenders.

They fought a prolonged legal battle with rival firm Dewina, which alleged in 2006 that they had won a R25-million ration-pack tender after Masilela exerted improper influence on Ramfolo — an allegation both men denied.

But the Pretoria High Court agreed the process had been manipulated and ordered the tender frozen.

Later that year it emerged that Adagold had won a department tender to fly ballot papers for the DRC’s first post-war election, despite charging R20-million more than rival cargo operators.

Immense sums are involved. Between January 2005 and July 2006 Adagold charged R170-million for flights to destinations including Bujumbura, El Fashir, the Comores, Lubumbashi, Kisangani, Kinshasa and Khartoum, according to department figures.

During this period it was awarded 81% of all flights on offer. More recently, say competitors, its share has climbed close to 100%.

Under the system for awarding flights, operators are asked to tender and those that qualify are shortlisted. They are then asked to bid on groups of flights, with the contracts ostensibly awarded to the lowest bidder.

Department figures show that Adagold has regularly been awarded contracts despite charging higher overall prices. Rival firms ascribe this to manipulation of the tender criteria.

The same shortlist, and the tender establishing it, has been in place since 2004 and has been extended four times.

Two air-freight operators, who asked not to be named, said they were no longer receiving invitations to bid despite being on the list.

‘Adajet is now getting all the flights,” said one. ‘Letters and faxes to the defence secretary have been ignored.”

The firm has also leased an Antonov 72 to the department for operation out of Bujumbura. The contract was not put out to tender, said other operators.

Masilela said he was unaware of the allegations and denied receiving letters of complaint.

Said Pietersen: ‘If there was anything to it we would have been investigated by the police. The department has had an investigation in the past. We do business as ordinary people.”