De Lille adviser hung out to dry on ‘washing line’

Despite assurances by the minister of public works and infrastructure, Patricia de Lille, that her office would not be found wanting in the construction of a R40-million border fence, a report has recommended action against her political adviser, Melissa Whitehead. 

Whitehead is one of 16 people recommended for disciplinary or criminal action by the Special Investigating Unit’s (SIU) report on its probe into the controversial tender to construct a fence near the Beitbridge border post between South African and Zimbabwe

The R40-million Covid-19 emergency contract became the centre of attention earlier this year after it became apparent the fence was inadequate. 

Soon after it was erected border jumpers cut it and crossed the border illegally. Parts of the fence were stolen, prompting public outrage and opposition politicians in parliament calling for an investigation. 

The SIU’s investigation found a litany of irregularities throughout the value chain of the contract. 

This included from its inception when De Lille declared an emergency on March 16, in line with the Disaster Management Act, that allowed for a deviation from normal procurement processes to construct the fence. 

This declaration included a directive to the department’s director general, Sam Vukela, to appoint a service provider using emergency processes, to erect the fence. Vukela has since been suspended for irregularities picked up in the state funerals procurement.

“Ms Whitehead conceded that the emergency powers invoked in the ministerial directive on the 16th of March 2020 in terms of the directive Disaster Management Act were the powers of the minister of Cogta [cooperative governance and traditional affairs]. 

Melissa Whitehead, adviser to the public works minister, and 15 others may face criminal or disciplinary action for the fence erected along the border with Zimbabwe.

“It is evident that Ms Whitehead poorly advised the minister in respect to the nature and extent of the minister’s interface [at an administrative level] with the DPWI [department of public works and infrastructure] as the minister sought to initiate a project to mitigate border threats at the Beitbridge border post in particular,” the report said.

The report also found that: 

The R40.4-million paid to two companies — Magwa Construction and an unidentified principal agent or project manager — was irregular;

Advance payments of R21-million to Magwa Construction and R1.8-million to the principal agent were made against milestones which had not been reached;  and

The project should have cost R26-million and was thus overpriced by more than R14-million.

Among the recommendations was action against Whitehead, the blacklisting of the two companies, as well as criminal charges against Vukela in line with the Public Finance Management Act. 

This week De Lille’s office said disciplinary action was under way against 12 departmental employees. The other two, Vukela and Whitehead would be disciplined in separate processes in terms of their conditions of employment.

Previously, the department defended the procurement with Vukela saying it was value for money in the face of scrutiny from parliamentarians. At the same meeting, De Lille said reports of vandalism and theft of the fence continued. 

After the SIU investigation report was made public, she said it confirmed that she and her office were not implicated in any wrongdoing and that the report would be referred to the special tribunal looking into Covid-19 corruption. 

Earlier this week the opposition Democratic Alliance’s representative for public works and infrastructure, Samantha Graham-Maré, called for the minister and Whitehead to be fired. 

“Despite the minister claiming high and low that these investigations would absolve her from wrongdoing and that she had no role to play in the procurement of this ‘washing line’ — the SIU report clearly states the opposite,” Graham-Maré said.

“She did not follow the law by flouting procedures, and as such, she failed to uphold her oath of office. As a minister, De Lille is bound by her oath to uphold the values of the Constitution and her actions in this entire debacle point that is she has failed to do so.” 

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Sabelo Skiti

Sabelo Skiti is an investigative journalist.

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