Dubious tender processes

2009-11-06 00:00

IT has become a disturbing norm that ordinary people believe that government tenders, as a matter of course, go to friends and family of public servants who occupy high-ranking positions in government departments.

This perception exists at local government level too, where municipal councillors have been known to throw their weight behind service providers of their choice and push for them to win council tenders. If, by some chance, tenders do not go to family members, relatives or friends of those in authority, then it is generally understood that outside bidders must have given certain “financial assurances” to secure favourable outcomes.

These transactions involve hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ rands. A Sunday newspaper recently reported that more than R650 million was amassed by public servants through business ventures with the government. In KwaZulu-Natal alone, more than 900 public servants amassed tenders worth R136 million between April 2005 and March 2007. Most culprits were reportedly from the Health and Education departments.

Approximately 308 employees did business with their own departments and 539 did business with departments other than those they worked for.

In a recent report, the auditor general said the majority of government workers do not have approval to perform remunerative work outside their formal jobs. He said some provincial departments have “deviated from the supply chain management process without the necessary approval by awarding tenders to or accepting quotations from employee-related entities.”

The auditor general added that these activities could be an indication of preferential treatment or fraudulent activities in the adjudication of tenders or quotations.

Whatever the reality, it’s not a pretty picture. Combine this behaviour with high-ranking politicians spending millions on top-of-the-range cars and fancy houses, and the picture is even less attractive. I know there are ministerial handbooks containing guidelines about such things. But just because excessively lavish acquisition is not illegal, it’s still insensitive, given the number of South Africans living below the poverty line.

What is really puzzling is that in the case of the province’s departmental employees and their spouses benefiting from tenders, the auditor general stated categorically that many did not declare their business interests with the government and did not have permission to do business with the government.

Why not? If legislation allows government employees to bid for government jobs, why did most employees in the province not seek permission? If most of them are business owners or business partners, why did they not declare their business interests before tendering and being awarded the jobs?

I support the call by members of the provincial legislature who preside over the finance portfolio committee for divulging the names and ranks of the civil servants who benefited from the R136 million worth of government tenders.

It is clear that not only do we need stringent monitoring measures, which ensure that government employees abide by the legislation when it comes to tender processes, we also might need some way of barring people already occupying high-paying jobs — directors, managers, supervisors, heads of departments and CEOs — from doing business with the government.

Perhaps the salaries of civil servants should be taken into consideration before tenders are awarded. And what about a limit on the number of tenders for which civil servants can bid?

Black economic empowerment was supposed to benefit the previously disadvantaged citizens of this country. That’s fine. But nowhere did the policy say that high-ranking government officials who earn more than R40 000 a month should also be able to receive tenders worth between R650 000 and R8 million and that this would be in keeping with the government’s vision of economic growth.

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