/ 21 April 2023

KZN pupils go hungry as ‘philanthropist’ provider doesn’t deliver

Learners queue for a meal. (Madelene Cronje)
Learners queue for a meal. (Madelene Cronje)

High-flying director of AmaZulu FC, Manzini Zungu, is at the centre of the KwaZulu-Natal education department’s school nutrition debacle that has left thousands of learners across the province hungry on their return from the Easter break.

Zungu is director of Pacina Retail, the single service provider to which the province awarded the contract to provide food for the 2.4 million learners being fed at mainly no-fees schools in the province.

Pacina was granted the tender as sole supplier of food for the school nutrition programme from the beginning of the year, after the province scrapped its existing arrangement with local-level companies.

Schools throughout the province were unable to feed learners after the Easter break when Pacina failed to provide them with food, and in some cases, delivered rotten produce, leaving learners hungry.

Schools in outlying areas were forced to travel to major centres, including Ulundi and Richards Bay, to collect food from Pacina, rather than dealing with local suppliers as was the previous arrangement.

By Friday, schools in the King Cetshwayo district and in Umgeni in the midlands were still battling for supplies, which had been delivered to central points, but not to them.

The education department was understood to have released department vehicles to assist with collecting food to try to ensure that learners were eventually fed.

The debacle has rung alarm bells, with the national department of basic education — which funds school nutrition — wanting to know why KwaZulu-Natal, the biggest education department, abandoned the national policy of using local suppliers.

KwaZulu-Natal education MEC Mbali Fraser this week denied that there was any “political connection” in the appointment of Pacina, chastising opposition MPs who pointed out the company was owned by AmaZulu owner Sandile Zungu.

Manzini Zungu, who registered Pacina in 2017, was a key figure in the failed campaign of Sandile Zungu, who he refers to as “my brother”, for the position of ANC KwaZulu-Natal chairperson last year.  

Manzini Zungu is also a non-executive director on the board of AmaZulu FC, which was bought by Sandile Zungu in 2021, and is involved in distance learning projects with the University of Johannesburg.

The self-proclaimed philanthropist is the patron of the Manzini Zungu Foundation and owns Pacino Pictures, a creative company which produced the award-winning animated film uShaka Inkosi Yamakhosi in 2021.

Zungu, who describes himself in his LinkedIn profile as a “film maker, publisher, creative, strategist, a Wharton Business School alumni plus dedicated farmer and all-round visionary” owns a number of Spar retailers and Tops bottle stores through Pacina.

According to an internal education department memorandum, which the Mail & Guardian has seen, Pacina was awarded the tender to “develop and execute a private label” for the department for three years, with an option to extend by a further two years.

Pacina is being paid R2.34 a learner a day for primary school learners, with a 5% escalation annually. For high school learners, Pacina receives R2.72 a day, escalated by 3% each year. 

The “private label programme” is aimed at — in theory — improving the quality of food supplied and cutting costs by bulk-buying in advance through a single supplier and was introduced by Fraser’s department in December, ahead of the start of the school year.

The supply of food is the first phase, with the service provider also being tasked with recruiting and training “food handlers” and procuring kitchen equipment for the 5 400 schools involved in the nutrition programme.

The province first attempted to deviate from the national approach of using local suppliers, and appointed a single managing agent, in 2016, with 10% of the then R1.4 billion nutrition budget being ring-fenced for the agent’s fee.

A senior education official, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said the idea was “flatly refused” as the “economies of scale were not consistent with the logistics costs”. 

“One agent [supplying] over 5 200 schools [was seens as] a logistical nightmare. There is also a higher cost with regard to transport,” they said.

There had also been concerns about agent’s fees.

“In 2016, we were requested to ring-fence 10% — approximately R140 million — for the agent. It would be double that now,” the official said.

“This meant top slicing funds from the [then] allocation per learner of R1,90 [primary] and R2.90 [secondary] per learner. This is a conditional grant that is strictly for feeding, with no provision for an agent,” they said.

After the idea was shelved, the province had continued with the system of local suppliers but, in December, appointed Pacina as its agent.

It is not clear at this point what logistical and warehousing capacity Pacina has.

Its chief executive officer, Sean Brimacombe, who joined in July 2021, has extensive experience in retail logistics and handling, having worked for the Spar group.

Zungu did not respond to a series of detailed questions from the M&G about the company’s logistical capacity and why they had failed to deliver to thousands of schools in the province.

Fraser’s spokesperson, Siqiniseko Shezi, said the delay in the supply of food items might be a breach of the agreement between Pacina and the department.

“The department will look into the matter of compliance with the service level agreement and take action if necessary. At this stage, the focus for the MEC has been to ensure that learners get food,” Shezi said.

“We can confirm that food has been delivered to schools.”

Shezi said the department had experienced shortages of food and problems with food quality during previous contracts.

Increases in food prices were “forcing service providers to buy cheap items and therefore compromising quality of food supplied. Schools also experienced shortages of food items supplied.”

Pacina was appointed “to ensure easy monitoring of food quality before the supply to schools”, Shezi said.

“A main service provider is appointed to ensure that buying of food items does not become a strain on the service providers and does not result in shortages of food. Through the main service provider, the quality and quantity of food items delivered to  schools will be easily monitored,” he said.

In her budget speech on Thursday, Fraser said the province had received R2.09 billion from the national school nutrition programme for 2023-2024, after being allocated an additional grant of R1.2 billion.

The province feeds 2 445 466 learners from 5 446 schools, providing them with breakfast and lunch daily.

She said the department had implemented a “private label programme”, which was now run by Pacina, to do bulk procurement by placing annual orders with service providers.

According to Fraser, the programme would recruit and train 14 675 volunteer food handlers and procure kitchen equipment.

Fraser said there had been “some glitches, which resulted in the delays in the delivery of food items to schools last week … due [to] logistical challenges encountered by the newly 

appointed main service provider”. 

The department had “swiftly intervened” and “put measures in place to ensure the delivery

of food items to all the schools across KwaZulu-Natal”, she added. 

“We are closely monitoring the situation as part of ensuring that all learners are provided with nutritious meals, as expected. I’m pleased to report that good progress has been made and our learners are getting meals,” Fraser said.

Sandile Zungu moved swiftly this week to distance himself from the Pacina scandal.

“I wish to place on record that Sandile Zungu is not involved in the national schools nutrition programme in KwaZulu-Natal or elsewhere,” he said. “I have never been and never will be.”

Asked about Manzini Zungu’s relationship with him and the football club, he said: “Manzini can speak for himself.”