/ 29 April 2023

KwaZulu-Natal school feeding scandal: Special Investigation Unit steps in

Ed 289530
The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) has been looking into alleged corruption in the R2.4  billion KwaZulu-Natal school nutrition programme debacle since February. (Fani Mahuntsi)

The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) has been looking into alleged corruption in the R2.4  billion KwaZulu-Natal school nutrition programme debacle since February.

Millions of learners have struggled without the breakfast and lunch served as part of the national school nutrition programme since the Easter break because the company granted the tender either failed to deliver food or provided rotten food.

The tender, awarded to Pacina Retail (Pty) Ltd, owned by self-styled philanthropist  AmaZulu FC director Manzini Zungu, first drew the SIU’s attention earlier this year after a whistleblower tipped the unit off about the contract.

But the provincial education department’s director general, Nkosinathi Ngcobo, has failed to provide the SIU with the tender documentation it requested two months ago in connection with the deal, which has now been scrapped.

Pacina’s failure to supply the nearly 5 400 schools with food has also set off alarm bells, with both Premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube, who has appointed her adviser, Linda Zama, to investigate the tender, as well as with Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga.

Motshekga’s national department funds the school nutrition programme and she has written to KwaZulu-Natal MEC for education Mbali Fraser demanding all documentation for the award to a single service provider, a major deviation from the national system for supplying school nutrition projects at predominantly no-fee schools around the country.

The tender has been scrapped by the department, according to ANC provincial secretary Bheki Mtolo, but Fraser has remained silent on the matter, despite increasing pressure on her from within the party and government over the fiasco.

In a letter to Ngcobo on 17  February, SIU KwaZulu-Natal head Ashish Gosai said the investigating unit had received allegations from a whistleblower that Pacina “did not meet the tender specifications, yet was awarded the tender”.

Gosai said the SIU was mandated to only investigate matters regarding state institutions and public money and required the department’s cooperation in assessing whether it could proceed.

“In assessing the allegations and whether [the] same can be pursued by the SIU, the SIU requires a measure of corroboration of the allegations together with documents where possible to support the motivation for a proclamation.”

Gosai said the allegations regarding the irregular tender award — for three years with an option to extend by another two — required clarity from the SIU’s case assessment committee.

Gosai asked Ngcobo to provide the supply chain documentation regarding the tender, the bid specifications, the bid evaluation and adjudication process, a copy of the contract, a cost breakdown and proof that the tender specifications were met by Pacina.

Ngcobo was asked to do so by 27  February, but had not done so by the time of writing.

Pressure has been ramping up on Fraser — and Zungu — over the failure of the company to supply the schools, which were previously serviced by local-level companies that provided fresh food and groceries to the school kitchens.

By last week the department had taken over supplying food to schools in some parts of the province because of Pacina’s logistical shortcomings and was scrambling to come up with a plan for May.

On Wednesday Mtolo said the party leadership had met Fraser and told her to terminate the contract with Pacina and to revert to the relationship that had existed with small service providers.

Mtolo said the ANC would ask the province’s Ithala Development Finance Corporation to assist local level service providers with credit facilities so that they would be able to resume school feeding at local level.

Fraser’s spokesperson, Sqinikezo Shezi, had not responded to questions about the tender — and why the department had failed to cooperate with the SIU — at the time of writing.

The Mail & Guardian has seen an email, purported to be from Zungu, to Ngcobo in which he informs the education department head that Pacina “have decided to opt out of the NSNP [national school nutrition programme] contract”.

Zungu said that all costs incurred by retailer Spar in the contract “will be paid by the department of education”.

Pacina owns a number of Spars and Tops bottle stores in the province. It appears that Pacina received the tender on the basis that Spar would provide the logistics and food after a successful “pilot project” in one area, for which Zungu’s company had initially tendered.

Pacina’s chief executive, Sean Brimacombe, has historical links with the Spar group, and insiders say he and Zungu had planned to leverage this in using the retailer’s stores, warehouses and logistics capacity to meet the conditions of the tender.

But the agreement between Spar and Zungu appears to have gone sour before the tender could be implemented.

In March, Spar managing director Angelo Swartz wrote to Zungu telling him that although Spar had assisted him with a limited “pilot” on the basis of which he had received the full tender, it did not have the capacity to supply him beyond the initial pilot. 

He said Spar’s participation had been restricted to “providing supply and logistical assistance for a limited scope” and that the limited agreement was only meant to have commenced in June 2023.

“We have made it clear that at the moment our supply and assistance cannot currently meet the scope of the full tender,” he said. 

Swartz instructed Zungu to write to the department telling it he did not have the capacity to deliver on the tender scope and that he had reached a new arrangement with Spar.

In terms of this agreement, Zungu would have to apply for credit and order goods from Spar distribution centres 21 days in advance and would have to take responsibility for deliveries to the schools from Spar centres.

Zungu, who describes AmaZulu owner Sandile Zungu as his “brother”, undertook to respond to detailed questions from the M&G about his company’s logistical capacity and what went wrong.

Zungu then referred queries to his lawyers, who in turn said they had no mandate from him to comment.

At the time of writing he had ignored several more calls and messages from the M&G.

Democratic Alliance MP Imraan Keeka said he welcomed the decision by the premier, Motshekga and the SIU to step in, but expressed concerns that the investigation would be delayed.

“Despite the premier’s probe, the DA is not convinced that the NSNP crisis will end soon. We believe that it will only deepen over time and that probes by the premier and the national minister are smokescreens and delaying tactics that will cause further misery,” he said.

Keeka said it was “fortunate” that the SIU investigation would mitigate delays in investigations by the premier’s office, some of which had taken up to five years to complete.

“This cannot happen when children are starving,” he said, adding that the department had given little or no consideration to the immediate breach of contract by Pacina.

In a letter to Keeka, the SIU confirmed that it had requested documentation about the tender from the department, but that it had not been forthcoming.

Zungu may also face a criminal investigation after members of uMsinisi WokuZimilela, an organisation that has been “visiting” high profile politicians’ homes over service delivery failures, laid fraud charges against him on Tuesday.