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Government fails to act on officials implicated in R3bn SIU recommendations

Despite the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) finalising Covid‑19-related procurement corruption investigations worth R3-billion, national and provincial departments have failed to discipline 63 of the 127 officials implicated in the alleged graft. 

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The head of the SIU, advocate Andy Mothibi, has called the slow pace with which his unit’s recommendations for disciplinary action against these officials have been handled by state institutions “worrisome” and a “real concern”.

Of the 127 officials that the SIU flagged for allegedly enabling procurement corruption, about 60% were senior managers who, the unit found, displayed a flagrant disregard for procurement regulations. 

“It appears that persons with authority within [the] provincial government believed that the declaration of a national state of disaster meant that all procurement is automatically now conducted on an emergency basis, and without compliance with any of the normal prescripts regulating public-sector procurement,” the SIU’s report states. 

The minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, declared the national state of disaster in March last year in response to the then-emerging Covid-19 global pandemic, saying she had considered its magnitude and severity as declared by the World Health Organisation and taking into account the need to augment existing measures undertaken by organs of state to deal with the health crisis.

Within four months, President Cyril Ramaphosa had to task the SIU with probing irregular expenditure relating to the pandemic, including the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as funding for the construction and development of hospitals and quarantine sites; catering services for food parcels; ventilators; and disinfecting equipment, among others.

The SIU report said many provincial government officials “rubber-stamped” and adhered to “unlawful instructions from officials more senior to them”. 

“[This] resulted in a complete breakdown of the checks-and-balances protection normally afforded by the principle of ‘segregation of duties’. Consequently, officials working within support services processed commitment letters, purchase orders, invoices and payments without ensuring compliance with normal [supply-chain management] prescripts and other control measures,” it said.

The alleged lack of action against errant senior officials, which was detailed in a recent SIU report to parliament, is highlighted by how the City of Tshwane in Gauteng had failed to act on recommendations against two of its middle managers since the unit made referrals as far back as last December.

By October last year, the SIU had unearthed a slew of corruption related to the buying of PPE, as well as other Covid-19 procurement, to the value of more than R120-million. This included the procurement of shelters for the city’s homeless people, among other things. 

But the city, according to the SIU presentation, has not acted on this alleged corruption. The unit’s report found that Tshwane was not interested in doing so and was protecting its managers. 

“The municipality has confirmed that it has not yet instituted any disciplinary proceedings in this regard. The head of labour relations, Mr Ronald Oppelt, advised on 23 August 2021 that the [hearings] had not yet commenced,” reads the SIU’s presentation. 

The Mail & Guardian sent detailed written questions on 13 September to the City of Tshwane spokesperson Lindela Mashigo. Mashigo did not respond to the questions, nor did he answer his  phone on numerous occasions. His phone was ultimately switched off. 

(John McCann/M&G)

Another high-ranking political head accused by the SIU of not acting on its referrals was Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane, who had still not disciplined his special adviser since the unit recommended in February that he do so. 

The premier’s adviser, Dr Thobile Mbengashe, was the accounting officer in the health department when it sourced so-called “ambulance scooters” for more than R10‑million as part of the Eastern Cape’s Covid-19 response. The scooters, according to then-MEC for health Sindiswa Gomba, were meant to ferry people from remote rural areas to hospital. 

Proper tender processes were not followed with the procurement, the SIU found. In the report it said Mbengashe had contravened the constitution’s provisions “relating to the basic values and principles governing public administration”, as well as contravening the Eastern Cape’s 2017 supply-chain management document “which relates to ethical conduct”. 

The M&G reported in February  that Mbengashe had resigned from the provincial health department in September the previous year and moved to Mabuyane’s office in order to protect himself from being sanctioned by the SIU for his part in the contentious scooter procurement. 

In its report, the SIU stated: “The referral was made to the office of the premier and no disciplinary action [has been instituted]. The SIU is awaiting a formal response from [Mbengashe] and the state law adviser.” 

Both Mabuyane’s office and Mbengashe hit back at the SIU, with the premier’s office saying it was “concerned” about the assertion that the SIU reports had not been acted on. 

“The premier has acted on the report and there is progress on the matter. The office of the premier is not in a position to respond to the SIU through the media as the SIU is in a position to request progress on the matter directly from the premier or the department, which they have not done,” said Mxolisi Spondo, Mabuyane’s acting spokesperson. 

“The premier does not accept the contention that he is blatantly flouting the unit’s mandate as such suggestions are not true and without any basis, because as stated earlier, the premier has acted on the matter and there is progress in that regard,” Spondo added. 

Mbengashe, in turn, told the M&G that the SIU had never accused him of corruption, nor had it opened a criminal case against him. 

He added he had resigned from the health department “for personal reasons”, and that the allegation that his resignation was to protect him from sanction was “untrue and devoid of facts, and not supported by the SIU investigation on the motorbikes”.

“For the record, the SIU made a referral for investigation of financial misconduct for awarding an open, transparent tender which was awarded in terms of the [supply-chain management] policies and regulations,” he asserted.

“The SIU referral of financial misconduct was subsequently not supported by the findings of the [office of the] public protector, [which] investigated the case independently and found no financial misconduct against the accounting officer.”

He said that the only findings made by the public protector’s office were against the supply-chain management team, which Mbengashe said had reduced the number of days for the tender to be advertised from 21 to nine. Mbengashe added that the public protector found that the team had made error in scoring with regard to black economic empowerment grading. 

But, in March, acting public protector Kholeka Gcaleka found that those involved in the procurement process had done so illegally, without mentioning any names. 

Gcaleka said: “We found that the procurement process followed by the Eastern Cape department of health when it awarded Fabkomp contract number SCMU3-20/​21-​0022-HO to supply motorbikes with sidecar ambulance or clinic was improper and in contravention of applicable legal prescripts.” 

Still, Mbengashe maintained his innocence, asserting: “The allegations of financial misconduct by SIU were not supported by the findings of the public protector. Therefore there was no basis for further investigation for disciplinary actions.”

He added: “There is no truth in the unfounded allegations that I resigned because I was accused of corruption, I reject that allegation as baseless and malicious, and damaging to my good name and professional standing in society.”

KwaZulu-Natal education MEC Kwazi Mshengu, the SIU’s report stated, has also dithered in dealing with seven senior and middle managers who were found to have been complicit in more than R183-million worth of tender corruption in the department. 

In February, the SIU made reference to Mshengu after uncovering gross irregularities in the process of Covid-19 procurement, including cover quoting between service providers that were awarded the contract with other bidders; the purchasing of nonessential items by the department under Covid-19 emergency provisions; as well as fraud and forgery and uttering committed by service providers in the submission of the bid documents.

Uttering is another form of forgery or misrepresentation which has its own designation in commercial crime.

This was for the procurement of PPE and alcohol-based sanitisers for schools, as well as the controversial “bootcamp” for matric learners, who had to endure the ignominy of studying and living in a cramped and filthy tent. 

In its latest report, the SIU accused Mshengu of being unshakeable in his stance of refusing to discipline the implicated managers. 

“The matter was referred [in February] to the MEC, who requested that the SIU review its findings based on further submissions that were made. The SIU has responded indicating that it maintains its stance and that disciplinary action should be instituted,” reads the report. 

It added: “A letter was submitted on 23 March 2021 [to] the office of the Minister of Basic Education [Angie Motshekga] relating to [the KwaZulu-Natal education department’s] disagreement with the SIU’s finding, wherein she requested that the MEC engage with the SIU. There has been no engagement from the office of the MEC with the SIU since receipt of this letter.” 

The unit added that it had received the letter to Motshekga’s office from her department on 18 August. 

But KwaZulu-Natal education spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi denied that the MEC was not acting on the SIU’s referrals, saying: “The department is processing all findings made by the SIU. So we are not aware that there are any that are not processed.” 

During a briefing to parliament, the SIU’s Mothibi expressed his disappointment with what he felt was the state’s tardiness when it came to dealing with officials who enabled alleged corruption. 

“We are really concerned that the matters are not attended to speedily, and we would like to urge … the state institutions to implement consequence management on the officials that are found to have committed wrongdoing,” Mothibi said. 

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Khaya Koko
Khaya Koko is a journalist with a penchant for reading through legal documents braving the ravages of cold court benches to expose the crooked. He writes about social justice and human-interest stories. Most importantly, he is a card-carrying member of the Mighty Orlando Pirates.
M&G Data Desk
The Data Desk is the centre for data journalism at Mail & Guardian

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