South Africa

Mountains out of molehills: DA wins out in communications tender scandal

By Sipho Hlongwane 4 June 2012

Western Cape premier Helen Zille has characterised the controversy surrounding a communications tender awarded to TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris as a storm in a teacup, after the public protector’s final report found no unlawfulness. As it turns out, the Sunday Times got caught in a political war between the Democratic Alliance and its opponents. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

The government of the Western Cape has emerged unscathed from a communications tender controversy that roped in the Sunday Times and public protector Thuli Madonsela. It featured a showdown at high noon between Helen Zille and Madonsela, with the former promising to resign if any corruption was discovered. In the end, Madonsela merely noted four instances of maladministration – and Zille has not resigned. The questions have now fallen in the lap of the ANC in the Western Cape and the Sunday Times, which first broke the story.

In August last year, the Sunday Times published a story which alleged that the premier’s office awarded a multimillion rand communications tender to TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris without following proper procedures and regulations. The tender reportedly covered organising name tags and access cards for the provincial government’s 77,000 employees, taking care of business cards, all signage for the provincial government, including name plaques, and branding of provincial government vehicles. It also covered designing banners, corporate gift wrapping, exhibition stands, leisure-wear for business units, corporate uniforms and protective clothing.

“The tender was not publicly advertised or placed on the government tender bulletin, as required by treasury regulations. A scathing review compiled by the province’s own treasury found that the process to appoint TBWA ‘revealed a lack of control measures and good governance principles’. But the same department endorsed the tender process anyway, saying the flaws amounted to a ‘learning experience’,” the Sunday Times said.

Another complaint was that several of Zille’s special advisors had sat on the tender bid evaluation committee, leading the Western Cape ANC to claim that political interference had taken place (ironically, ANC stalwart Cyril Ramaphosa’s Shanduka Group owns a large share of TBWA/HuntLascaris).

The Western Cape province quickly denied wrongdoing and promised to do an investigation of its own – and welcomed the investigation of the protector. Seven months later, the protector absolved Cape Town of wrongdoing. Madonsela did not condemn the presence of two special advisors on the evaluation committee, merely noting that it could create suspicions of political interference.

On Friday, Zille said the entire exercise had been a waste of Madonsela’s time. “The report shows, above all, that the entire exercise was a storm in a tea cup stirred up by our political opponents. We appreciate the fact that the public protector took our comments, and those of our senior counsel, seriously,” she said.??“The entire affair was a waste of the public protector’s time and cost the South African taxpayer hundreds of thousands of rands at least, that could better have been spent on service delivery,” said Zille.

There was one disagreement: the protector flagged an R8,696 advertisement as “waste” because two out of three contracts awarded were deemed “improper” and had to be re-advertised. Zille’s office responded by saying: “We disagree (with Madonsela) that this constituted fruitless and wasteful expenditure, because it must be seen relative to the cost of not re-advertising and potentially compromising the process further.”

The matter was complicated just a little bit more a week ago when, rather conveniently, a draft report from the public protector was leaked. In it, Madonsela reportedly declares that there was wrongdoing in the awarding of the contract, and that the entire tender should be scrapped. However, after final input from the premier’s office and the province’s senior counsel, the final report absolves the Western Cape.

The premier insists that on the following four points, her government has been absolved:

There was no corruption in the awarding of the TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris contract.

There was no political involvement, interference or manipulation in the procurement process.

The premier was not personally involved in the procurement process.

The presence of special advisers on the tender bid evaluation committee made no difference to the outcome of the evaluation.

The province’s ANC has expressed its disappointment in the protector’s final report. “We feel there are substantial issues that have been watered down,” said Songezo Mjongile, the party’s provincial secretary. The party has promised to take the matter to Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts.

The Sunday Times stands by its original story, according to Avusa’s parliamentary bureau chief, Caiphus Kgosana. He said the paper didn’t get caught up in a political fight because  the story, which he penned, was based on fact.

“We do not believe that the story was planted at all,” Kgosana said. “The story, as it was written, was based on fact. We write stories based on the facts that we have available to us. We thought that this story was newsworthy and we still stand by it. There is nothing that we would change.”

The original story published by the Sunday Times made it seem as if the tenders had not been advertised, which would have been a serious offence.

Now it just looks like the story was leaked to the paper (by some unknown person) for political point-scoring. It wouldn’t be the first time that this has happened. The same paper also found itself holding the muddy end of the stick when a report on Gauteng police commissioner Mzwandile Petros turned out to be full of holes.

The Star also found itself exposed after a source claimed that the police were about to arrest Madonsela for corruption. The story turned out to be untrue, but contained enough circumstantial evidence to cause a national furore. The most blatant example of this was when reports surfaced in the press that deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe had a love-child. This, too, turned out to be complete lies.

In this particular case, the consideration is not the planting of a blatantly untrue story – but one that contains a kernel of truth and, with some embellishment, becomes a political scandal. The loser here would definitely have been Zille, had the original story been completely factual. While this sort of strategy is usually employed in ANC factional battles, the low-frequency war between the ANC and the Democratic Alliance in the Western Cape does get newspapers tangled in its web too. DM

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