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Let’s use 4IR to inject a vaccine against the procurement virus

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Lumko Mtimde is a former Special Adviser to the Minister in the Presidency. He is also an ANC and SACP member.

The procurement system has become a tool of wealth for the few, deepening the enrichment of apartheid or pre-democracy beneficiaries; hiding behind malleable blacks who are fronting or holding encumbered ownership with little or no control of management and operations or skills transfer. It is time to remove human hands from the process.

Laws governing procurement in South Africa need a massive overhaul. Now, legislation that is being introduced presents an opportunity to revolutionise the current regime. This is in spite of the principles of cost-effectiveness, fairness, transparency, equity and competitiveness, which are designed to advance economic development, poverty eradication, job creation, redress of imbalances of the past per the Constitution of SA, and the entrance of new role players and SMMEs into the mainstream economy.

But this article is not about the current procurement probes: it is about future government procurement processes, in line with the Draft Procurement Bill (February 2020) repealing the existing framework.

Next to Covid-19, the biggest pandemic confronting our society, including all political parties, churches, businesses and communities, is betrayal manifesting as endemic corruption, greed, jealousy, desperation and the introduction of money into our body politic. Having said this, one must be vigilant against unsubstantiated allegations of malfeasance levelled against innocent people.

To avoid collapsing the state, we must rid our country and society of tender irregularities and corruption. Let’s therefore apply our minds to the societal challenges. We need proper tools of analysis, rigorous probing, engagements, and creative and innovative scientific research that will promote preventative tools that protect the state and individuals.    

Since the dawn of our democracy in April 1994, the ANC-led government has developed and produced sound laws and policies. Within the Constitution, in particular section 217 and the competition regime, are some of the legal instruments created to advance development. The ANC led the peaceful transition to democracy, brought stability, and grew as the political brand of choice. It has been rewarded by the electorate six consecutive times.

But the old ways of doing things need to be reviewed and adjusted by material conditions. Let state processes not fail to evolve, like the dinosaur did.

The basis of this article will be contested by some as there is a battle of ideas designed to enrich and shape the political discourse, and change the way of doing things in an evolutionary milieu. A capitalist system thrives on the survival of the fittest and elimination of the unfit – and is inherently uncaring for the poor and vulnerable. It leads to abuses of power in the form of corruption, and the uneven and unfair distribution of wealth gives rise to dishonest acts.

Corruption inhibits growth and development, which goes against the grain that underpins our essence as a movement – eradicating poverty and creating jobs as part of the ANC’s 54th Congress blueprint of radical economic transformation. 

As the late Cuban president Fidel Castro put it, “Capitalism has neither the capacity, nor the morality, not the ethics to solve the problems of poverty.” Our economic system, while regarded as a mixed economy, is capitalist in nature and has swallowed many cadres into its voracious belly.

Some “strong” opponents of corruption are neither principled nor consistent in their principles. There is a growing category that shouts loudest due to not being satisfied with the results of procurement after they have diligently and regularly submitted into procurement processes and not been awarded.

Well-intended economic transformation policy interventions to address the imbalances of the past – with objectives of redress enshrined in our Constitution and given effect through various pieces of developmental legislation – have degenerated into procurement squabbles and the enrichment of a few and destruction of many. This gory situation has been laid bare at the Zondo Commission and the Mompati and Khampepe Commissions, exposing the deep rot that continues to erode the moral fibre of society, deepening poverty and widening inequality.

The procurement system has become a tool for wealth accumulation for far fewer than those it could benefit, deepening the enrichment of apartheid or pre-democracy beneficiaries; hiding behind malleable blacks who are fronting or holding encumbered ownership with little or no control of management and operations or skills transfer. The ownership and means of production, therefore, remain in white hands.

In an endeavour to achieve an inclusive economy, the efforts have resulted in destructive, personal and aggressive fights for procurement appointments – in some instances just to be appointed with no capacity and to be subcontracted to a white minority controlled company, a creation of networks of unsustainable cabals, and in some cases outright inflated pricing or poor service to benefit “handlers”. All these and related issues are symptoms that thrive in a putrid capitalist setting. 

Some “strong” opponents of corruption are neither principled nor consistent in their principles. There is a growing category that shouts loudest due to not being satisfied with the results of procurement after they have diligently and regularly submitted into procurement processes and not been awarded.

These disgruntled individuals and cabals attempt to disguise their actions through alleging irregularities and corruption in state procurement processes. Is the pandemic only in state facilities? Are these opponents of corruption not meant to watch both public and private sectors? After all, it is a pandemic cutting across all of them. Why the use of media and political forums to attend to state processes and not follow due processes?

These acts of hypocrisy are ostensibly used to shore up solidarity by those who advance their gluttonous agenda under the guise of the fight against corruption. We need to be vigilant against these tendencies. All these tendencies exist and can be mitigated. 

Before one digresses to compare elements of corruption in other systems, like in some socialist countries and others, let’s get back to what technology can do to address our challenges. The ANC must not allow administrative challenges to derail it from its revolutionary task; let it use new technologies to drive business processes.

The new Draft Procurement Reform Bill is an opportunity to digitise the system. More energy should go towards investing in e-procurement. This will even ensure internal control efficiencies, thus easing the work of the Auditor-General and the National Treasury.

A review of the system is needed – a review of the very stringent laws intended to ensure internal controls, and the possibilities created by new technologies. We need to look at ways of programming the systems with the internal controls entrenched in our laws and policies, automating the entire ecosystem, building in the segregation of duties, removing human hands from supply chain systems and processes, and producing dashboard reports that can be considered for monitoring and decision-making purposes.

Supply chain automation is about systematising part or all of a workflow to improve processes. In essence, it means utilising technology to centrally manage a complex web of working. Based on the above, digital transformation of procurement systems will minimise the regrettable incidents caused by some that tarnish the brand of our government, abuse taxpayers and bankrupt the country. 

Connect the country with high-speed broadband, lower data costs, reskill employees, encourage access to online platforms by all our citizens, and encourage entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation in the digital space. Promote a digital economy, in particular in supply chain management. Automation gives rise to a number of benefits for both the state and business – it reduces manual effort while increasing productivity, efficiency, accuracy and enhanced risk management.

Automation is a game-changer; procurement is the game. In the digital age, entities need to optimise their workflows to maintain a competitive edge. Supply chain automation enables the improved processes and system trails protecting reputations. E-procurement should ensure and enable the bidders and service providers to access information. Information should cover the full procurement process, from advertising, downloading of documents (eradicate payment for procurement documents), processing steps, compliance review, adjudication, award, e-invoicing, e-payment and contract management.

Introduce real-time decision-making and record-keeping backed up to a secure portal that will synthesise, analyse and produce a dashboard report of the successful bidders for relevant accounting authorities. The era of round table bid evaluation and bid adjudication committees is outdated.

An automated online procurement process will contribute significantly to the achievement of the intentions of Section 217 of the Constitution – providing for fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective procurement, including the acceptable categories of preference in the allocation of contracts, and the protection or advancement of persons or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination. 

E-procurement will contribute to avoiding corruption and factionalism affecting the leadership of institutions and government.

In closing, improvements made from the abolished historical tender boards to the current system have not yielded substantial positive results, despite all the good intentions. Instead, they have been hijacked, as we saw with State Capture… corruption on steroids. 

We need political will, improved efficiency, fast-tracking of plans, and timeous consequence management when it comes to those abusing or misappropriating state resources.

The new Draft Procurement Reform Bill is an opportunity to digitise the system. More energy should go towards investing in e-procurement. This will even ensure internal control efficiencies, thus easing the work of the Auditor-General and the National Treasury.

Coupled with e-procurement, the criminal and justice system must be digitised. This is critical to give meaning and effect to the principle of “justice delayed is justice denied”. The government must support the commitment by Justice Minister Ronald Lamola to fully digitise the judicial system and do away with the manual storage of mountains of paperwork.

It is unacceptable that a person does the right thing by stepping aside so that procurement-related investigations can proceed without the risk of interference, but then months go by without finalisation of the investigation, subjecting innocent people to trial in the court of public opinion. 

Long investigations, usually as a result of poor document management, are not in the interest of good governance and fairness. Similarly, guilty parties must be proven guilty as soon as possible. The current process of taking years to adjudicate a case is not fair to the affected parties or the state resources.

Again, digitisation offers many worthwhile advantages – not only does it increase productivity, it also protects rights and obligations through safekeeping of confidential data, reduced chances of missing data, sound disaster recovery management, and promoting an environmentally friendly state. Digitisation will add points to the state’s eco-friendly account. Because of digitisation, information has become accessible in real time, which has made life easier for many.

Covid-19 has presented an opportunity to modernise our systems and benefit from the efficiencies of digital platforms. We have seen government, political parties, civil society, business, families, and more operating on digital platforms. These 4IR technologies are positioned as having the potential to propel countries into a new age of unprecedented economic prosperity. These potentials are even more urgent because of Covid-19.

We need political will, improved efficiency, fast-tracking of plans, and timeous consequence management when it comes to those abusing or misappropriating state resources.

Let’s vaccinate procurement processes by automating them soon. DM

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