EXCLUSIVE: Failed schools project behind Guptas' first govt millions

Johannesburg - A Gupta-led computer consortium made almost R70m from a failed Gauteng education department initiative which was meant to have resulted in the province's public schools having fully functional computer laboratories.

And it has emerged that partners in the consortium were sidelined and didn't benefit financially from the lucrative contract.

Instead of receiving fully-functioning computer labs, as the initiative intended, old computer equipment is now basically all that remains in the classrooms.

The Carter Primary School in Alexandra is a mere 15-minute drive from the heart of Sandton, but the two areas are vastly different in terms of economic opportunity. 

In 2002, the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) announced an ambitious programme that sought to narrow the opportunity gap between schools like Carter Primary and wealthy ones.

Dubbed Gauteng Online (GoL), the initiative was supposed to see the installation of fully-connected computer laboratories at all of the province's 2 500 primary and secondary schools.

Enter the so-called Sahara Consortium, a collection of computer hardware and software firms led by the Guptas' Sahara Computers.

It would become one of six consortia picked by the GDE for the GoL project, but the Guptas allegedly ditched their consortium partners before the government millions started rolling in.

Successful bid

Seeing as the GDE supposedly wanted a comprehensive computer lab package, that included e-learning material, Sahara first had to showcase what it and its 15 partner firms could offer before being appointed for the GoL roll-out.

This was done during a trial period in 2002.

Sahara installed its computers at five schools in the province, after which the software firms installed their learning programmes on the Sahara computers.

In 2003, Sahara announced in a sponsored article on Engineering News that it had been appointed for the first phase of GoL.

This would see Sahara provide "ICT infrastructure and full connectivity" at 110 schools. Each lab would consist of 25 PCs, while Sahara would also furnish each school with a printer, a television set and a DVD player.

The "grant", as Sahara referred to its contract with the GDE, was valued at about R25m.

It was a rather significant coup for Sahara.

Despite at that point being a relatively new entrant in the IT market, Sahara managed to win the lion's share of GoL's first phase.

The five other consortia, which included big-name computer brands such as Dell, Mecer and HP, had to share the remaining 390 schools between them.

Sahara was also lucky enough to receive special mention from the highest echelons of government.

"We wish Sahara Computers everything of the best going forward and we look forward to providing greater accessibility and exposure to the benefits of communication technology, especially among rural communities," former trade and industry minister Alec Erwin had said at the start of the project. But Sahara's so-called consortium partners wouldn't share in the spoils of the Guptas' first major government tender. 

The room that used to serve as the Carter Primary School's computer laboratory now houses music instruments, boxes of files and other random items. There are no functioning computers. (Pieter-Louis Myburgh, News24)

 

Sidelined by the Guptas

Three former members of the Sahara Consortium, who each represented a different firm that teamed up with Sahara, say they were completely sidelined as soon as Sahara won the contract. They spoke to News24 on condition of anonymity.

"The software companies put in a lot of work, time and money installing software on those computers (during the trial phase), without charging a cent for it," says one of Sahara's former consortium partners.

"But we thought it would be worth it because the Guptas, who’d have meetings with us at Sahara’s offices, kept telling us that we’d eventually get big software contracts as soon as Sahara won the GoL contract," says the source.

Another former Sahara Consortium member recalls how dismayed his firm had been when it dawned on them that they wouldn't get a cent from GoL.

"I thought it was just us who'd been sidelined, but I started speaking to the other firms and learnt that nobody was being contacted by Sahara to partake in the roll-out at the schools," says the source.

As Sahara and the other consortia continued to install computers at Gauteng schools - apparently mostly without the educational software that formed part of their offerings during the trial phase - GoL was starting look like a massively expensive disaster.

By 2007, schools and other stakeholders had started calling the project Gauteng Offline, seeing as the GED and the consortia it had appointed simply couldn't deliver on the promise of fully-connected computer laboratories.

In that year, the project was taken away from the GDE and given to the Gauteng Shared Services Centre (GSSC), which kicked Sahara and the five other consortia off the programme and appointed a single service provider in their place. This development came with its own litany of controversies. 

Nothing to show for taxpayers' millions

At Carter Primary, one of the schools where Sahara installed computers during GoL's first phase, a stack of old keyboards and computer mice is the only sign that there had ever been a computer lab at the school.

The hard drives and screens were stolen years ago, explains a teacher.

Music instruments, boxes of files and other random items now fill the classroom that was supposed to serve as the computer lab.

News24 phoned two other schools where Sahara computers were installed during GoL's first phase, and both tell tales similar to Carter Primary's; the computer labs became white elephants after the computers failed to come online.

News24 asked the GDE what Sahara had been paid for its participation in GoL, but the department doesn't seem to be sure about its own figures.

After a first round of questions, the GDE said in a written response that "the department has so far used almost R33 million to pay Sahara Consortium for its participation in the Gauteng-Online Project". It also provided us with a spreadsheet that details the 108 schools where Sahara computers were installed in GoL's first phase. The list included Carter Primary and the other schools we'd contacted.

However, after News24 reminded the GDE that Sahara was also involved in further phases of GoL, the department provided us with a new set of figures.

"The department paid R67 million to Sahara Consortium for its participation in the Gauteng-Online Project for Phases 1 and 2," said the GDE in its second response.

Its updated spreadsheet indicated that Sahara had installed labs at 233 schools.

News24 approached Sahara director Evan Tak, Gupta lawyer Gert van der Merwe as well as the corporate communications division of Oakbay Investments, the Guptas' main holding company, for comment. None of them replied to our queries.

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