/ 21 July 2017

KZN school lunches may be off menu

Apportioning blame: A crisis looms in the KwaZulu-Natal school feeding programme.
The provincial education department has delayed handing over tender documents to the SIU since February Photo: Supplied

Come Monday, tens of thousands of children at KwaZulu-Natal schools are at risk of missing their only meal for the day — unless companies that do not exist suddenly appear to feed them.

Tens of thousands more could go hungry because legitimate companies that are supposed to feed them have not received their paperwork.

Yet the provincial government has denied there is any problem.

Schools in KwaZulu-Natal resume on Monday July 24. On that day, 1 848 new providers, tentatively appointed on June 30, are due to start delivering meals to the schools that serve some of the poorest communities, meals that for some children are their major source of food.

The appointment of these service providers under three-year contracts — a long-delayed step — represents a huge victory for the KwaZulu-Natal department of education, its spokesperson, Muzi Mahlambi, told the Mail & Guardian.

“We are 100% happy about this process; we have never been this happy. This is a milestone. It is a legacy,” he said. “We are very excited about this. The community of KwaZulu-Natal is excited about this, our schools are excited, saying now there is going to be stability.”

But a check on a small sample of the providers shows serious problems. In one district alone, contracts were awarded to six companies that simply do not exist; they have never been registered and seem to have no existence outside a mention in the single government tender bulletin in which they were assigned to provide food at specific schools.

“That’s your knowledge; we don’t know where that is coming from,” Mahlambi said when asked about these instances. “You can’t appoint a company that does not exist. That’s never been heard of.”

Among the companies that do exist are ones that could not validly win government tenders for various administrative reasons. Some have been deregistered; others were only created after a compulsory briefing in December.

“Everyone that is appointed, due process was followed and we are satisfied,” Mahlambi said.

The problems extend beyond the seemingly dodgy companies. This week, the M&G spoke to a dozen service providers who said they had not yet received letters of appointment, just a few working days before they were due to start providing food to schools. Three were unaware their bids had been successful. Four said they had tried to contact the education department for clarity and paperwork, with no success. None was keen to start work without the requisite paperwork — and some flatly refused to consider doing so.

“I’m not going to go to a school and just give food,” said one. “The principal will chase me away.”

Another tender-winner said she had approached several institutions for a loan, and all had told her to come back when she had a letter of appointment. She needed to buy a gas stove and pay for the rental of a bakkie, she said, and also needed cash to buy food to prepare for Monday. “If I get that letter on Friday, I don’t know if there will be time,” she said.

Other new providers were unconcerned about starting work on Monday, despite being unprepared.

“It is not a problem. I’m going to employ the four ladies who cook at that school now,” one tender-winner said. The “four ladies” were employed by the company that previously provided food for the school, he said, “and they know how everything works”.

But by Tuesday he did not know the names of the ladies in question and was not sure how he would go about tracking them down. He had not yet visited the school where he would be providing food, did not know what equipment it had available or whether there was electricity, and said he had not yet given thought to a menu plan.

“For tens of thousands of KwaZulu-Natal learners, the one meal provided at school is the only meal received for the day,” Tshepo Motsepe, general secretary of Equal Education, said this week.

“It is a fact that the NSNP [national school nutrition programme] is vulnerable to corruption — many such instances have been reported in KwaZulu-Natal, in which both government officials, school staff and service providers have been implicated.”

But the KZN education department’s Mahlambi said: “No school is going to go hungry. Come Monday, all schools are going to be feeding.”

‘Buy my tender for R120 000’

On Tuesday, a group of 26 companies in the Pinetown area failed to obtain an urgent interdict against the implementation of KwaZulu-Natal’s new school-feeding tender. They will continue to fight until they run out of money, the group vowed — because the evidence of dodgy dealings is overwhelming.

“There are successful bidders who are currently trying to market their bid to persons who were previously providing services and were unsuccessful, and to do so at a premium,” said Tyvitta Baloyi in an affidavit put before the high court in Durban this week.

“One such bidder is seeking payment of R120 000. There are others who are approaching existing suppliers for loans and who clearly have no experience or expertise.”

Baloyi’s company, Qala Okusha Trading, is the primary applicant in the group, which, having failed to convince the court of the matter’s urgency, will now continue at the usual slow pace of civil matters. They want the tender that covers all 1 848 school food providers to be declared invalid and set aside.

The KwaZulu-Natal department of education opposed the application on the basis that Baloyi’s group had not shown urgency, had not exhausted alternative resolution methods and had made what it contended were fatal errors in process of serving their papers.

The group took two weeks to put together their submission and then gave the provincial government just one day to respond, the education department told the court.

To continue their fight, Baloyi’s group must now serve papers on 191 respondents, the companies that won tenders to provide food at schools in the district — if they can afford it. Tracking down companies that do not exist takes time and money, said Baloyi’s lawyer, Julie Harris.

Baloyi said she and her colleagues knew of many legitimate companies, competitors of theirs, that had won tenders at schools in their districts.

“Many of them can do this job,” she said. “But there are many others we know can’t do it. I will be very surprised if, come Monday, children don’t go hungry.”

KwaZulu-Natal education department spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi characterised as sour grapes all complaints and legal action regarding the tender. “These providers had been benefiting from government work for years,” he said. “Now, all of a sudden, because a chance is given through due process to other people replacing them, they’ve got issues.”