Mystery surrounding Free State website deepens

The saga surrounding the Free State's R40-million website was exacerbated on Monday when Premier Ace Magashule was accused of channelling millions of state rands to the same company that built the online platform.

“We are in possession of proof dating back to 2009 showing blatant corruption between the premier’s office and this company,” Patricia Kopane, leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) in the Free State, told the Mail & Guardian.

According to the allegations, the Letlaka Group – which benefitted from the contentious R40-million website – was paid tens of millions of rands for work that was not properly put out to tender.

Chief among the claims included:

  • Payment of R2.6-million for the management of the premier’s 2009 state of the province address
  • A R4.175-million advertising contract being awarded to the Weekly newspaper, allegedly owned and run by Letlaka, without going to tender
  • Landing a R300 000 monthly contract for the printing and distribution of government marketing material
  • Receiving R12-million annually for Hlasela TV, which Letlaka manages and broadcasts to 100 public buildings and institutions in the Free State

The DA further claimed the provincial government spent an estimated R1.6-million on adverts in 88 adverts in just 10 editions of the Weekly over a three month period.

"Ninety-nine percent of Letlaka’s money comes from the Free State provincial government,” Kopane added.

“If it were not for the patronage that is dished out to this company by Ace Magashule, it would have gone out of business a long time ago.”

Service delivery falling short
Kopane added Letlaka was building a “propaganda machine” for Magashule in a time when service delivery was falling short in the province.

“The independence of media platforms in this province is under threat and it should be a massive alarm bell for the rest of South Africa,” she said.

Kopane said she would be following these allegations up with the public protector, who was already investigating Hlasela TV for signs of public money being misused in its formation.

In spite of several attempts made by the M&G telephonically, via SMS and email, Magashule’s spokesperson Oupa Khoabane did not respond to calls for comment.

Questions over bid evaluation
Questions remained about who evaluated and approved the tenders for the website.

ITWeb reported that the Free State’s chief information officer Tshepo Motiki – the official assumed to have responsibility for providing ICT oversight in the department – was on sick leave since March 2012 but continued to receive his full salary.

According to the website, the Free State government earlier said Motiki was a member of the bid evaluation committee but Motiki denied that he was responsible for analysing the costs of the website.

When contacted by the M&G for comment on the controversial awarding of the tender, Motiki referred questions to Free State spokesperson Mondli Mvambi.

“I think it's best if you call the department and let the department respond,” he said.

Minutes from the government information technology officer’s council of the Free State showed that the website – or integrated provincial government internet website – was discussed extensively last year. Despite the obvious questions about the cost, usability and security of the site raised by industry experts over the past week, minutes from January showed that the integrated website project was "considered as concluded and removed from the agenda”.

The company that won the bid
Meanwhile, M&G readers have been scrutinising the credentials of Ikamva ICT, one of the companies involved in the consortium that won the tender to develop the Free State Online website, questioning how it came to win such a large tender given its shoddy portfolio of prior work.

A reader pointed out that the language used on the Android application development page of the Ikamva ICT website was very stilted.

One line read: “Experts From Africa always give 200% to clients with best solutions.”

The reader performed an internet search on the text and found that almost all of it was copied directly from an ICT provider’s website in India.

The ICT outsourcing company, Experts from India, stated that “Experts From India always give 200% to clients with best solutions.”

Ikamva ICT appeared to have simply replaced “Experts from India” – the name of the Indian ICT company – with “Experts from Africa”.

The M&G on Monday tried to contact some of the companies listed under Ikamva ICT’s portfolio. One of the companies was shut down, there was no response to calls to another, and a third was understood to have terminated its services with Ikamva ICT.

Kagiso Jansen, director of Mission Point, said the website Ikamva ICT designed for his company was done through the small enterprise development agency, an agency of the department of trade and industry.

“They have a programme where they assist businesses with non financial support services, [such as] websites and business cards. The provider is on their database. [The agency] paid 90% and we paid 10%,” he said.

Jansen, who said that he was satisfied on the whole with the quality of service he received, said the site and service provided cost him between R10 000 and R13 000.

Efforts to contact Ikamva ICT were unsuccessful.

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