Controversy surrounds tender for SA’s fastest supercomputer

Super computer at the CHPC. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)
Super computer at the CHPC. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

Johannesburg - South Africa unveiled Africa’s fastest supercomputer last month but the tender for the project has come under the spotlight amid allegations of attempted “undue influence”.

Last month, the state-owned Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) unveiled Africa’s fastest supercomputer, dubbed Lengau, which is seTswana for ‘cheetah’.

Housed at Cape Town’s Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC), Lengau ranks 121 on the TOP500 List at the International Supercomputing Conference in Frankfurt, Germany.

The machine further has 40 000 cores, which means it is equivalent to the power of 40 000 laptops connected by a 56Gbps (Gigabit per second) network.

But in a letter to staff - published by business technology publication ITWeb - the chief executive officer for the CSIR, Sibusiso Sibisi, said a member of the department of science and technology tried to influence the outcome of the tender process.

“During 2015, the DG (deputy general Dr Phil Mjwara) approached me to discuss a tender that had been put out by the CSIR for the provision of high-end computing equipment to be housed at the CSIR’s Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) in Cape Town,” wrote Sibisi.

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

“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.

Sibisi, in the letter, then goes on to say that he rejected this alleged attempted influence by the DG on the outcome of the tender award.

After the tender process, the build of the supercomputer was carried out by a CHPC team in collaboration with the Cambridge High Performance Computing Centre, Dell and Eclipse Holdings.

“The launch of the new CHPC facility took place recently, to well-earned media coverage. The provider (Eclipse Holdings) was not the one that came up in the conversation with the DG,” wrote Sibisi.

Sibisi, in his letter, said that he recently “pointed out to the DG” that the department of science and technology is “where the first line of defence against undue influence” should reside.

“There appears to be lack of recognition that the checks and balances of good governance at the CSIR are so robust that even if I wanted to sway a procurement process, I really would not be able to,” Sibisi wrote.

“To gain direct control on the levers of power at various levels within the CSIR, one would first have to dismantle the current system of checks and balances and sack a good many principled people in the process. Given that the CSIR’s success is underpinned by the tightly coupled principles of good science and good governance, dismantling the latter would almost certainly result in destruction of the former. The CSIR would become a shadow of its current self,” Sibisi further wrote.

Before addressing the supercomputer tender in his letter, Sibisi questioned the department of science and technology and Minister Naledi Pandor for a said probe into alleged maladministration and corruption at the CSIR.

The probe has allegedly come about amid a complaint from a former employee of the CSIR who was dismissed in April, wrote Sibisi.

But Sibisi has questioned the merit of the the former employee’s allegations and the way in which the department has attempted to conduct the investigation into the matter.

When Fin24 put forward questions to Sibisi on the probe and his allegations concerning the supercomputer tender, he declined to comment.

“He (Sibisi) has indicated that he would not be taking any further questions on this. All there is to be said has been said in the press already,” CSIR media relations manager Tendai Tsedu told Fin24 in an email.

Meanwhile, Mjwara was not immediately available for comment to Fin24 as his office said he is on a trip to Geneva, Switzerland. Spokespeople at the department of science and technology were also not immediately available to comment on the matter to Fin24.

However, investigative journalism unit amaBhungane, in a report that appeared on the Daily Maverick on Friday, said that it managed to contact Mjwara who said: “I got a call from someone wanting to know information about a tender process, which the CSIR was running. I referred the person to the CEO of the CSIR. End of the story; that’s all we did.”

But amaBhungane reported that days later Mjwara “backtracked” when confronted with “new information that he had not simply told his enquirer to call the CSIR but had directly phoned Sibisi himself”.

“I phoned him (Sibisi) to alert the CEO that there is a request for information whose detail I can't respond to but am happy to refer the person to him for issues raised as I am in no position to respond to requests on tenders from our entities,” Mjwara told amaBhungane.

In the meantime, Sibisi is set to step down from the CSIR.

“I will personally be moving on in 3 months (end of September) when my third contract comes to an end. I do not doubt that I will leave behind a resilient organisation that will survive the necessarily transient turbulent times and recapture the quiescence that is essential to ensure that the CSIR does indeed deliver ‘Óur Future Through Science’,” Sibisi wrote in his letter to staff.

“All the best to you all,” he concluded in his letter.

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