MAVERICK CITIZEN

The great Covid-19 swindle (Part One): Business as usual at the Gauteng Department of Infrastructure Development

By Mark Heywood 26 August 2021

Illustrative image | Sources: Adobe Stock | Rawpixel | nicepng

In this series of four articles, we provide an update on our investigations into financial misconduct around fogging in several departments of the Gauteng Provincial Government as well as the Johannesburg city metro.

Mark Heywood

In the public mind the great Covid-19 corruption scandal is best exemplified by the wrongdoing around the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE).

It was revelations around this in Gauteng that first alerted people about the scale of Covid-19 corruption and led to the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) being given a broad authorisation in a proclamation by the president (23 of 2020) to investigate Covid-19 related expenditure. 

The provision of PPE certainly attracted a lot of corruption. This week the cold-blooded murder of Gauteng health department finance manager Babita Deokaran drew renewed attention to the the SIU investigations as it emerged that the victim was a whistle-blower and key witness.  

However, evidence Maverick Citizen has compiled suggests that the contracts entered into, and the amounts of money spent on unnecessary decontamination, deep-cleaning and “fogging” of public buildings may ultimately dwarf the amounts spent on PPE. So far, three Gauteng provincial departments and the City of Johannesburg alone have totted up spending of more than R630-million – and that figure is likely to rise.

In this series of four articles, we provide an update on our investigations into financial misconduct around fogging in several departments of the Gauteng Provincial Government as well as the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality.

On 13 March Daily Maverick published a report, based on a study of Gauteng’s Covid-19 expenditure disclosure reports, detailing how R117-million had been spent by the Gauteng Department of Infrastructure Development (GDID) on “fogging” of public buildings. We revealed that tenders had been irregularly awarded to six companies for “fumigation services”. 

At the time, department spokesperson Bongiwe Gambu said: “Fumigation in this context refers to a decontamination method involving the spraying of vapour, mist or fog to kill undesirable living organisms on the surface or airborne, including microbial. This is commonly referred to as fogging.”

Our investigation revealed that none of the six companies which were each paid between R3.8-million and R39-million had prior track records in cleaning and sanitising public spaces. 

Immediately after Maverick Citizen published similar information about the Gauteng Department of Education’s (GDE’s) R431-million spend on sanitising schools, Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi referred the matter to the SIU for investigation. Although the investigation is ongoing, it led the SIU to approach the Special Tribunal to freeze assets worth more than R60-million of seven of the companies which had benefited from the irregular contracts. Recently the SIU issued “referral letters” to several senior GDE officials proposing disciplinary action.

However no such action took place in the GDID. 

As a result, five months after our exposé Maverick Citizen sent questions to the Gauteng MEC for Infrastructure Development, Tasneem Motara, to ask what steps her department has taken. Motara confirmed that no investigations (either internal or by the SIU) had been initiated because, she claimed, “the AG has not deemed these irregular and therefore they aren’t”. 

She also claimed that, “as explained previously, the fumigation was conducted in line with the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) guidelines and regulations issued at the time. These have since been amended.”

These curt answers begged further interrogation. We contacted Africa Boso, spokesperson at the Auditor-General of South Africa (Agsa). Boso reported that because the AGSA was “still in the process of conducting annual regularity audits for 2020-21 financial year” it could not “provide an opinion on ongoing audits before they are concluded”.

Boso referred our query back to Motara, saying: “As this audit is still under way, the department will be best suited to deal with your enquiry.”

Without saying so Boso, however, contradicts Motara’s claim that Agsa has already evaluated and validated the contracts.

In response to questions as to whether the Agsa, who has issued three Covid-related special reports, had detected wider irregularities around government spending on “fogging” decontamination, Boso said: 

“As part of its risk assessment and response, the Agsa audits selected expenditure by provinces and local government. Our special audit reports on Covid-19 (available at www.agsa.co.za) indicate all the various areas we focused on during these audits. These various focus areas differ from auditee to auditee, and where findings or observations are identified, these are communicated to the auditee with recommendations.”

Based on a study of the three reports, it seems that Agsa has not yet focused specifically on the fogging contracts. 

Finally, we examined Motara’s claim that the department had followed DPSA guidelines in its approach to decontaminating buildings. 

Bongiwe Gambu, the spokesperson for the GDID, provided these guidelines to us. However, the guidelines indict rather than absolve Motara and her department. 

The DPSA Circular No 7 on Guidelines for the Containment/ Management of the Coronavirus in the public service was issued on 16 March 2020. It is signed by the director-general. Although this circular requires a head of department to “establish and maintain a safe and healthy working environment” and sensibly mandates the “cleaning and disinfection of surfaces”, nowhere in the document is fogging recommended.

Circular No 18, dated 1 May 2020, also makes no reference to fumigation or fogging as being the recommended method to make workplaces safe from Covid-19.

One further undated DPSA document was provided to us by Gambu. Titled Guideline in managing the return to work environment for employees within the public service: Covid-19 its recommendations are diametrically opposite to the expensive practice of the GDID. 

It reads:

“6.1.3. Fogging as a deep cleaning method not recommended

  • Deep cleaning does not mean fogging (spraying, demisting etc.)
  • The National Department of Health (NDoH), WHO, CDC, EPA etc. do not recommend fogging.”

The circular gives reasons why fogging is not recommended. These include  “increased inhalation exposure of disinfectant to workers and community”. As a result, it says, “The NDoH and WHO recommend deep cleaning via wiping disinfectant on contaminated surfaces with a cloth/wipe (high- and low-touched, as identified by a risk assessment) after thorough cleaning.”

Although Motara still claims no wrongdoing has been revealed, Maverick Citizen and experts in the cleaning industry are of a different opinion. 

Kaizer Kganyago, spokesperson for the SIU, confirmed that these particular contracts are not under investigation. We think they should be and that if Motara won’t refer them to the SIU, then Gauteng Premier David Makhura should. DM/MC

You can read part 2 here, part 3 here and part four here.

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