590 000 poor pupils could go hungry as department stalls school tenders

The poor nutritional food given to learners continues as the department of education in Mpumalanga and service providers are at odds over tender processes for the R1.2 billion school feeding scheme. Picture: File
The poor nutritional food given to learners continues as the department of education in Mpumalanga and service providers are at odds over tender processes for the R1.2 billion school feeding scheme. Picture: File

The Mpumalanga department of education is in a quandary about what to do with a recommendation to appoint 32 companies for the much-contested and lucrative school feeding scheme, worth about R1.2 billion.

The department’s bid evaluation committee, according to a document City Press has seen, recommended the appointment of these companies in July, but now there is an obstacle in the way.

The Mpumalanga cabinet took a decision that would see the government’s nutrition programme for schools and hospitals be translocated to the Mpumalanga Economic Growth Agency (Mega) – a parastatal reporting to the economic development MEC, Eric Kholwane.

Due to this, the department could find itself being dragged to court over the school nutrition tenders which feeds 577 784 poor pupils from 189 rural villages and townships.

Worried service providers, who spoke to City Press on condition of anonymity, said that they were concerned the school nutrition programme bid adjudication and evaluation process could be started afresh because of the imminent transfer of the programme to Mega even though they went through the bid processes and had met the set criteria.

The 32 companies are also concerned that Mega could bow to pressure from their competitors who lost the bid and have approached the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to intervene on their behalf. However, the EFF have already threatened the department with court action if they succumb to pressure from the service providers.

The service providers’ worry is based on the fact that the department has stalled for more than two months in officially appointing them since the bid evaluation committee issued its recommendation, which was leaked to the service providers.

The bid evaluation committee’s report reads: “The bid evaluation committee considered that there was no competition in terms of prices as indicated in paragraph 24 of the bid specification. Competitiveness was with regard to functionality (capacity and capability). The recommendation of the bid evaluation committee is informed by level and degree of each bidder’s capability and capacity and therefore all the 32 bidders are recommended in that regard.”

“It is clear from the bid evaluation committee report that we should be appointed, but they [the department] are dragging their feet,” said a concerned service provider.

“We understand that Mega wants to re-advertise the tender and cut the number of service providers to 12. This cannot be right because most of us will be out of business. The department must have good reasons not to appoint us as per the committee’s recommendation, because this matter may end up in court,” he said.

Although the department has denied this, the EFF has claimed victory for the halting of the appointment of these companies following its threats to interdict the process.

Mpumalanga EFF chairperson, Collen Sedibe, said his party agreed with Premier Refilwe Mtshweni and education MEC Sibusiso Malaza to transfer school nutrition to Mega in order to curb corruption in the awarding of the tender by the department’s officials.

“This is also to ensure that the programme benefits ordinary people from the villages and townships as part of black empowerment – in particular women, youth and people living with disabilities,” Sedibe said.

Mpumalanga education spokesperson, Jasper Zwane, declined to respond to specific questions about the tender.

“Please be informed that the matter relating to the appointment of service providers for the national school nutrition programme is undergoing due internal processes and has not been concluded. For this reason, it remains proper that the due processes be respected until they are finalised,” Zwane said.

Mega spokesperson, Desiree Ntshingila, said: “Mega is not involved in the procurement processes within the department of education, and therefore does not see itself getting involved in the purported lawsuit.”

“The processes undertaken by the department falls outside the mandate of Mega. Mega is obligated to undertake its own procurement processes in appointing service providers, in terms of the Public Finance Management Act,” she added.

Ntshingila confirmed that Mega was mandated by Cabinet to take over the government nutrition programme.

She said Mega would run the programme internally and source its produce directly from small-scale farmers and utilise small, medium and micro-sized enterprises (SMME) transport companies, predominantly owned by youths.

“The new model aims at ensuring that the government spend supports small holder farmers and SMME manufacturers (for dry products), and SMME transporters in the province. The Mega programme is rolled out in such a way that it benefits businesses in the [whole] of Mpumalanga,” Ntshingila said.

“However, the model of the department is such that individually appointed companies supply food products and these companies are not compelled to source from local small-holder-farmers and small businesses within the province,” she added.

Litigation

In March last year, education head of department in Mpumalanga, Mahlasedi Mhlabane, lost a Supreme Court of Appeal application to reverse a North Gauteng High Court ruling that forced her to follow supply chain processes for school nutrition programme tenders that were irregularly awarded in 2013.

Nine companies had taken Mhlabane to court after she awarded tenders to 17 companies which did not qualify – an action the court described as “abhorrent” and “shocking” due to glaring irregularities.

Qualifying companies have since been appointed from August 1 last year on three-year contracts worth R1.1 billion.

Last month, six companies whose contracts were terminated on May 10 2016 and replaced without following tender processes told City Press they were busy with papers to sue the department for R100 million in lost income.

The companies were part of 17 that had been appointed on three-year contracts with an option to extend for another two years.

Mahlabane allegedly terminated their contracts midway through their two-year extension period.

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