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Court judgment ignites political firefight over Joburg’s critical fire engine shortage

The ruling highlights procurement irregularities during former mayor Herman Mashaba’s term. (Illustration Images/Emergency Medical Services (EMS) officers at the scene where a fire broke out at a building located on corner De Villiers and Rissik Street in Johannesburg (Photo by Gallo Images / Daily Sun / Lucky Morajane)/ Johannesburg Mayor Geoff Makhubo(Photo by Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo) and former Mayor Herman Mashaba (Photo by Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo)

The ANC, ActionSA and DA have all used a recent judgment on Joburg’s fire engine crisis to score political points. The ruling highlights procurement irregularities during former mayor Herman Mashaba’s term but no one can claim the higher ground as the city's procurement attempts have been repeatedly marred by mismanagement, leaving Joburg with between seven and 11 operational fire engines to service some of the country’s most densely populated communities.

The ANC, DA and ActionSA have each responded to a South Gauteng high court judgment on a City of Johannesburg deal to purchase fire engines by highlighting each others’ alleged graft.

In a way, they’re correct – the ruling highlights how multiple city administrations have bungled attempts to procure new emergency vehicles, leaving the city with just seven fire engines for around 30 fire stations.

“The procurement of the fire engines has been marred by allegations of irregularities,” states Judge Thina Siwendu in her ruling delivered on 29 March 2021, putting it lightly.

The story starts in 2015 when the city’s ANC administration agreed to pay the company Fire Raiders R161-million for 29 vehicles. Five were delivered as Fire Raiders was unable to fulfil the contract, which was marred by allegations of fraud.

A DA-led coalition took control of the city in 2016 under the leadership of then-mayor Herman Mashaba, who led Joburg until November 2019 before leaving the DA to form ActionSA. This week, Mashaba called the Fire Raiders deal “a disaster of a contract”.

DA Joburg caucus leader Leah Knott said, “The DA terminated this corrupt contract in 2017, fired the official responsible, and started a new process.”

In September 2018, the city launched another tender process to procure fire engines and its evaluation adjudication committee (EAC) recommended Tallis Fleet Consortium manufacture and supply the vehicles.

“Allegations of tender irregularities marred the recommendation,” reads Siwendu’s judgment.

Tallis then withdrew from the deal. The tender process was cancelled and city manager Dr Ndivhoniswani Lukhwareni, who was appointed during Mashaba’s term and left his job in March 2021, issued a request for information (RFI) from potential bidders, saying the city wanted “on rubber” vehicles ready to be deployed to solve Joburg’s severe shortage of fire engines.

The bid didn’t go out to tender and the city requested a deviation from standard procurement processes. The city awarded TFM Industries an R582.9-million to provide 92 fire engines, known as the “red fleet”.

“The City had put the cart before the horse, because the permission for the deviation was sought on 11 June 2019 – after it had already initiated the RFI process,” said Siwendu.

Mashaba this week said Lukhwareni initiated the emergency procurement process in line with the Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA). The court judgment revealed the process was “procedurally incorrect”, he said.

Knott said the DA now knows such deviations are “highly risky” and the party should have exercised better oversight.

Their admissions appear glib given that Mashaba and Knott proudly announced the delivery of the emergency vehicles in 2019 while at the same time procurement laws were being flouted.

On his last day as mayor, Mashaba boasted that the city had “embarked on a record procurement of fire engines”.

Siwendu found the deviation from competitive procurement procedures was unlawful and that the process was deliberately mismanaged.

TFM had a long history as a service provider to the city but didn’t have experience in manufacturing fire engines. It couldn’t meet the expedited delivery deadlines and was found to have misrepresented its finances.

That led to the municipality making prepayments for the vehicles, which went against a specific clause in the agreement.

“The payments, as well as the haste with which they were made, underpinned the applicants’ complaint that there was corruption and malfeasance in respect of the tender contract,” reads the judgment.

The city paid TFI R172-million between 27 September and 15 November 2019. Some of those payments were made after TFI’s competitors had lodged a complaint and a court review was pending. Siwendu said there was no evidence the prepayments had been properly approved.

Lukhwareni claimed he only learned of the allegations of mismanagement when they were raised in late 2019, which Siwendu dismissed: “Considering that the RFI was issued under his hand and he thereafter approved the deviation, there was extensive flouting of the procurement principles. The scale of the procurement irregularities reveals deliberate tender mismanagement, which proceeded undetected, and fundamental weakness in the governance and procurement process – at huge cost to ratepayers.”

Current Johannesburg Mayor Geoff Makhubo, elected by an ANC-led coalition in December 2019, said the judgment proves Mashaba’s government “was a corrupt and ethically flawed administration whose actions sought to award tenders in the City without adherence to due process and legislation”.

But Siwendu said Makhubo’s claims that he acted immediately after receiving reports of alleged malfeasance were “inconsistent and difficult to believe”. Under Makhubo’s leadership, the city eventually withdrew its opposition to the court challenge and admitted there were flaws in the procurement process.

TFM delivered 15 grass fire units. Siwendu ordered the company to deliver 13 more vehicles, which have been paid for and are available. She ruled that the balance of the contract is invalid. She further ordered TFM to repay the city all profits it made from the contract.

A report into the matter by the city’s Group Forensic and Investigation Services unit was presented to the court. It found no evidence of fraud or corruption, although its terms of reference were limited.

Two senior officials in the city’s fleet and compliance management division, Sanjay Dubru and Jimmy Maluleke, were reportedly suspended in January 2020. The pair were linked to the TFM deal as well as Afrirent’s R1.2-billion fleet contract and Avis’s R295-million contract for the maintenance of Pikitup vehicles.

Businessman Mcebisi Mlonzi’s company Kwane Capital took a controlling stake in TFM in 2017. While it appears no one has been charged in relation to TFM’s fire engine deal, Mlonzi was charged in 2019 with fraud, money laundering and contravening the MFMA regarding a R92-million deal with the Amahlathi Local Municipality.

ActionSA’s Mashaba this week pointed to the extensive corruption allegations against Mayor Makhubo, which have been raised in the Zondo Commission.

The DA’s Knott claimed Makhubo had diverted R200-million from the city’s budget this year to buy new fire engines towards “cadre recruitment in the mayor’s office”.

As rival politicians point to each other’s failures, Joburg is literally burning.

“As of February 2019, of the 29 fire stations, the City could only utilise between seven and nine fire engines, limiting its ability to respond to emergencies, and increasing the risk to public lives. Densely populated areas such as Diepsloot, Lonehill, Bryanston, Midrand, Sandton, Alexandra, Rosebank, Randburg, and Soweto, amongst others, are underserviced,” reads Siwendu’s judgment.

In March 2021, Robert Mulaudzi, from Joburg’s Emergency Management Services, said the city has between seven and eleven operational fire engines, depending on how many vehicles are being repaired.

Makhubo assured residents that the city is committed to procuring new fire and rescue vehicles through a lawful, transparent and competitive process. DM


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