South Africa

Days of Zondo

Former head of procurement at SAA Technical remains defiant about dodgy tender dealings

Former head of procurement at SAA Technical remains defiant about dodgy tender dealings
Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. (Photo: Sowetan / Gallo Images / Getty Images / Veli Nhlapo)

A contract which will end up costing SAA R1.8bn is in the spotlight at the Zondo Commission this week. The individual in the hot seat is the former head of procurement at South African Airways Technical, Nontsasa Memela, who is accused of breaching protocol by giving advice to the winning bidders — who also paid her about R2.5m.

Nontsasa Memela, a senior official from SAA, does not dispute that a company which scored a contract to supply aviation components to the airline paid her, in her personal capacity, R2.5-million shortly beforehand.

But, she says, the payment had nothing to do with the tender agreement.

“These two have absolutely no link in between,” the former head of procurement at SAA Technical (SAAT) told the Zondo Commission on Monday 10 February.

Last week, the inquiry into State Capture heard that Memela purchased a R3.8-million house in Bedfordview around February 2016, of which R2.5-million was found to have been paid by a local company called JM Aviation.

Roughly three months later, JM Aviation would win a contract to supply aviation components as the local BEE partner of US firm AAR Aviation.

Over two days of testimony, Memela has emphatically denied any connection between the two events. On Friday 7 January 2020, she told the Zondo Commission that the R2.5-million transaction in question was carried out between JM Aviation’s director, Vuyo Ndzeku, and Memela’s mother. It was payment for a piece of land Ndzeku purchased from her mother in the Eastern Cape, which Memela’s mother requested be transferred to assist her daughter with the purchase of her Bedfordview house.

Memela has said that she will provide the commission with the paperwork to prove this is the case. She has also noted that she did not sit on the bid evaluation committee to award JM Aviation the contract in question.

Commission evidence leader Kate Hofmeyr, however, returned to the matter on Monday.

Hofmeyr read aloud from the Request for Bid (RFB) document issued by SAAT, which included the stipulation that if any bidder were to give any commission, gratuity or other benefit to anyone employed by SAAT, the bid would be immediately disqualified.

Under these circumstances, said Hofmeyr, should JM Aviation not have been disqualified after making the R2.5-million payment to Memela?

“There was no benefit with regards to this tender,” insisted Memela.

“The agreement to sell the [Eastern Cape] property to Mr Ndzeku had nothing to do with me…I did not reciprocate. I had never reciprocated [JM Aviation] to have a winning bid.”

Hofmeyr pointed out that the prohibition on SAAT employees receiving benefits was not linked to SAAT employees then reciprocating the favour.

“On its own terms it is a clear prohibition. Reciprocation has nothing to do with this prohibition,” Hofmeyr said.

Memela remained adamant: “There was no gift coming from the bidder directly to me.”

But Memela’s problems do not end with the suspicious payment. Also of concern to the Zondo Commission investigators has been the fact that Memela privately communicated with representatives of JM Aviation regarding their bid application.

SAAT’s acting head of department of supply chain management, Schalk Human, previously told the commission that such communication with a bidding company was irregular.

On Monday, an email was read into evidence from JM Aviation officials to Memela, asking her to review their bid application and “let us know what we may have overlooked”.

Asked commission chair Judge Raymond Zondo: “Why would a bidder be asking the head of procurement for the company to which they are going to submit a bid to first check whether their proposal is acceptable?”

Memela claimed that neither the request for assistance nor her compliance was unusual. Part of her job was to assist BEE companies to meet supply development requirements.

“I think they were asking me if their supply development was in line with what was required,” Memela said.

“Since I was not sitting at the evaluation team, I was the one they could approach.”

Hofmeyr pointed out that the RFB document stipulated that any queries surrounding the bid addressed to “any other individual” other than the designated project manager would eliminate the bidder.

Memela contended in response that she understood the document to mean only that queries could not be directed to individuals sitting on the bid evaluation committee.

Asked why she had communicated with JM Aviation about the bid using her personal email address rather than her SAAT address, Memela responded: “I would use [my personal email address] at home when they can’t reach me at work”.

Shot back Hofmeyr, in reference to the time and date of one such email: “Were you at home at 4pm on a Monday?”

Memela has previously claimed that she is being unjustly targeted for her attempts to transform SAAT and bring in new BEE suppliers, telling the Zondo Commission on Friday: “I might have ruffled a lot of feathers by doing that because for the first time at SAAT, as a state-owned company, they had somebody who was pushing so hard for black people”.

It is a would-be black supplier, however, who has testified against Memela at the commission. Director of SRS Aviation, Rejoice Sambo, told the inquiry last week she believed Memela had colluded with JM Aviation to ensure the company won the components contract.

Memela and her lawyer have questioned the credibility of Sambo as a witness, given her status as a spurned bidder who admitted she was unhappy not to have won the relevant contract. Memela has also claimed that she supplied Sambo with the same kind of information she offered to JM Aviation, because Memela was “naively helping” a black woman at the helm of her own company.

But much of the evidence suggesting a close relationship between Memela, JM Aviation and the company’s US partner AAR has not been disputed. Among it is the fact that Memela and two other SAA technical officials travelled to the US on a trip sponsored by AAR before the tender period was concluded.

It is also clear that the process which led to JM Aviation and AAR being awarded the contract was unusually convoluted. Memela has confirmed that Lufthansa originally supplied the winning bid, which she has highlighted as evidence that she had no control over the decision.

This decision was subsequently overturned due to concerns over “unrealistic low prices”, with the tender then awarded to Air France. The SAAT board proceeded to overturn the Air France decision and opt to award the tender to AAR and its local partner JM Aviation.   

SAAT’s Human previously told the Zondo Commission that JM Aviation has since been paid R53-million, but fulfilled “zero” of its contractual obligations. Human also estimated that SAA will end up paying R500-million more than budgeted for to AAR by the time the contract expires.

On Tuesday 11 January, the Zondo Commission will continue to hear testimony from Memela and from JM Aviation director Vuyo Ndzeku. DM

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