CSIR, science ministry squabble over tender fraud allegations

Dr Sibusiso Sibisi
Dr Sibusiso Sibisi

A storm is brewing between the heads of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the science and technology department following allegations of attempted tender fraud.

In an internal email sent to staff last Wednesday, CSIR CEO Dr Sibusiso Sibisi accused Dr Phil Mjwara, the director-general
of science and technology, of approaching him last year asking how much “sway” Sibisi had over the awarding of a tender to Huawei Technology.

Mjwara’s discussion with Sibisi allegedly related to a tender worth about R116 million to supply computer equipment for the CSIR’s Centre for High Performance Computing.

Just a few months after Sibisi responded saying he could not “sway” the tender process, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor launched a wide-ranging investigation into alleged maladministration and corruption at the CSIR.

This was also after a dismissed employee had approached her with a complaint that included allegations that CSIR researchers violated their ethical code, and that Stoyan Stoychev, another researcher who was found guilty of fraud because he refused to pay e-tolls, was not fired.

After expressing his concern about the “Kafkaesque” nature of the departmental investigation, Sibisi alleged in the email that Mjwara had approached him last year, before the computer contract was awarded, and asked why the contract was not going to be awarded to a particular company.

“He was at pains to point out that he was merely conveying a concern from ‘named sources’ that it appeared the CSIR was not going to award the tender to a named provider,” Sibisi wrote.

That was a reference to the Chinese technology giant Huawei and empowerment partner Nulane Investments, which was unsuccessful in its bid for the tender.

“To the question of the extent to which I hold sway in the procurement process, my rejoinder was categorical: ‘Can’t sway. Won’t sway,’” Sibisi wrote in the email.

“More recently, I pointed out to the director-general [Mjwara] that his department … is where the first line of defence against undue influence ought to reside.”

Sibisi wrote that it was “profoundly ironic” that Mjwara should be “acting as a dutiful messenger to convey thinly veiled attempts to subvert our internal procurement process”.

Tommy Makhode, spokesperson for the department of science and technology, would only say that the investigation into the CSIR was continuing.

Mjwara said he was travelling and the incident was being investigated.

Tendani Tsedu, CSIR spokesperson, said the purpose of Sibisi’s email to employees was to explain developments at the CSIR. Further comment would be speculation.

Portia Mvubu, spokesperson for Huawei, said the company was not aware of the allegations.

In 2005, Nulane Investments acquired 31% of Huawei Technology’s local subsidiary. Previous directors of Huawei include businessman Yusuf Surtee, who resigned in 2014, but his wife Habiba remained a director.

Asked for comment, Surtee said: “We are not involved in Nulane in an executive capacity and do not have anything to do with tenders.”

He referred further inquiries to Huawei and Lester Peteni, Nulane’s chairperson.

Peteni said he did not have any knowledge of the events. He said as far as he was aware, Huawei was not awarded the tender for unfair reasons.

“We heard that we were considered as a preferred bidder, but then the CSIR withdrew the decision and the contract wasn’t awarded to us. The CSIR must provide answers as to why that happened.”

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