Cape Town – Parliament’s watchdog public accounts committee on Tuesday called for Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille’s role in the failed Beitbridge border fence project to be probed, as the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) said it was recommending steps against 14 officials in her department.
Appearing before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), SIU head advocate Andy Mothibi confirmed that those facing findings of misconduct included De Lille’s special ministerial adviser, Melissa Whitehead.
Mothibi said the SIU would press charges of fraud against the main contractor on the project, Magwa Construction, as well as the principal agent, and that it could move to have the contract nullified on the basis of irregularities and seek to recover millions of rand lost, if need be by freezing assets.
“We will probably issue papers by late next week in the special tribunal,” he said.
The SIU probe found that 60% of the contract value of the project was paid out to the contractor four days after it was awarded in mid-March, immediately after President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The contract was inked in terms of emergency procurement rules in a bid to secure the border as the pandemic spread. It cost the taxpayer R40.4 million (US$2.4 million) for 40km of fencing between South Africa and Zimbabwe, after accumulated price overruns of R14 million.
MPs heard from Mothibi that the fence soon had 115 “material breaches”, that it could readily be scaled as it was 40cm lower than the required 2.2m and that coiled barbed wire had been stretched beyond the point where it could count as a proper safety measure.
The acting director-general of the department, Imtiaz Fazel, conceded that there was no assessment of the suitability of Magwa Projects and no basis to transfer R20 million to it within days without the delivery of any material.
He said the transfer could be construed as a misappropriation and point to fraud on the part of a departmental official, but conceded under questioning from MPs that not one of the 14 officials fingered by the SIU have been suspended.
Scopa members demanded that they be suspended, but zoned in on De Lille’s role after the director-general of National Treasury, Dondo Mogajane, said it appeared that when she issued a directive, “it would seem that the minister had a contract, supplier or contractor in mind”.
This would flout the public finance management rule that “(in) terms of separation of powers, the executive authority must not interfere in administrative functions”, and Mogajane noted that the National Treasury was raising it as “a matter of concern”.
The perception came about, in part, because the minister’s directive to the department in March seemed overly specific in that it referred to the appointment of “the” contractor rather than “a” contractor.
Scopa chairman Mkhuleko Hlengwa said National Treasury had a duty to look into the matter to determine the probity of the minister’s conduct, and bluntly asked Mogajane whether it had dropped the ball.
“The nub of the issue here is the directive. You yourselves are raising an issue about the directive and its uncertainty yet not telling us how you then probed that directive and its content,” he said to Mogajane.
United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said the “bread crumb trial” on the botched fence must be followed all the way to De Lille and the directive she gave as “these so-called political directives are not surfacing today, we have seen them, and it has messed up the whole administration”.
The questions about her role come as Ramaphosa’s administration and the ruling party are rocked by indications that senior officials took part in tender fraud as the state embarked on a programme of emergency procurement to deal with the coronavirus crisis.
ANC MP Bheki Hadebe went further, saying: “You did not need a rocket scientist to ascertain and to confirm that this contract was predetermined.”
De Lille responded to the committee by saying there were constitutional obligations on members of the executive to oversee administrative actions, and noting that she had involved the SIU, through a secondment process, soon after the state of the fence became apparent.
Democratic Alliance MP Alf Lees remarked: “Your response was an obfuscation of note, and specifically my question: will you resign or will you not resign? It requires a simple yes or no.”
Ramaphosa appointed De Lille, the leader of the Good Party, to his cabinet shortly after she was ousted as the DA mayor of Cape Town amid infighting and corruption allegations that cost the City’s then transport commissioner, Whitehead, her job.
Replying to Lees, De Lille pointedly referred to the saga when she said she believed in due process and this was why she had won four successive high court cases against the DA at the height of their fallout.
De Lille has yet to make public the full SIU report into the Beitbridge contract. Hlengwa ordered her to hand it to Scopa by Friday and for the National Treasury to expand its probe into her role.
“National Treasury performs the in-depth investigation to look at, amongst others, including but not limited to, the directive by the minister and the relevant interventions which came with it.
’’So in other words, I’m saying the role of the minister must be investigated.”
African News Agency (ANA)