Scopa outraged as public works boss insists R37m Beitbridge fence is fit for purpose

03 June 2020 - 18:53
A 40km-long fence costing more than R37m will be erected at Beitbridge.
Image: Sunday Times/Esa Alexander A 40km-long fence costing more than R37m will be erected at Beitbridge.

Although it is being vandalised daily, the director-general of public works and infrastructure Sam Vukela told MPs that the Beitbridge border fence - erected as an emergency measure to curb the spread of Covid-19 - was serving its purpose.

“Yes, we can confirm that it is serving the purpose because we did so in compliance with the needs of the client and we have not heard any contrary view that it is not serving.

“We are satisfied that it is serving the purpose,” said Vukela on Wednesday.

He was responding to MPs' questions as to whether the department believed the R37m fence was money well spent.

Vukela said this despite his boss, minister Patricia de Lille, telling the same meeting of parliament's public accounts watchdog (Scopa) that her department's senior management team was getting daily reports of theft and vandalism of the fence.

De Lille said even after defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula deployed extra patrols along the border, including a helicopter and motorbikes, “the vandalism and theft continued on a daily basis.”

The department of defence is responsible for ensuring the safety of the country's borders.

The entire project is a subject of a series of investigations - including by the auditor-general, the public protector and the National Treasury, among others.

De Lille also revealed that her department has been advised by its internal anti-corruption unit not to pay any more money to the contractor until all the investigations into the contract have been completed. So far the department has paid R21m.

MPs raised questions about the decision to award the contract to the same company that had failed to deliver a proper service before, and the process followed in awarding the contract and whether there was value for the money spent on the project.

“Did we get the best value for money? That is exactly one of the issues that I have asked the auditor-general to investigate. What is the current market rate of fences, who are the suppliers and all of that - the investigation will determine whether we got value for money,” said De Lille.

That border fence is a disgrace, to say the least. It is anchored in corruption, wrongdoing, favouritism and abuse. It cannot be right.
Scopa chairperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa

The minister said she was prompted by thousands of questions from the public and the media to request the auditor-general to investigate the project. She did this in the public interest and to publicly account for what may have gone wrong, she said.

“I also raised the same issue of the costs in our daily meetings with senior management and one of the explanation the DDG [deputy director-general] provided was the terrain under which the contractor had to work.”

Scopa chairperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa said it was obvious that something fundamentally wrong happened in the project.

“Something is amiss. The pieces of the puzzle don't seem to be fitting. What we see there doesn't give us the comfort that you should have paid R37m. It's just chalk and cheese,” he said.

Hlengwa suspected that the department may have abused deviation processes in the project, saying it would be important for Scopa to set a benchmark for oversight using this as standard because of the value involved and the seriousness of the matter, it being a security feature.

“We still need to make a determination that it has fulfilled the particular purpose,” he said.

“That border post, as far as this fence is concerned, is a disgrace to say the least and it is anchored in corruption, in wrongdoing, in favouritism and it is anchored in abuse of disaster. It cannot be right.”

Other MPs asked why the department awarded the contract to the same company whose previous work had been questionable. 

“This fence was an exact replica of a fence that was in place prior to that, which was completely removed. Was it a sensible choice to go with a fence that had been used previously and had been completely removed by people?” said DA MP Samantha Jane Graham.

The EFF's Veronica Mente questioned the quality standards the department applied in approving the fence.

De Lille announced in March that her department would erect a R37m, 40km fence – 20km on each side of the Beitbridge border post - to ensure that those who crossing between SA and Zimbabwe do so through the legal channels.

But as soon as the fence went up, criminals struck, cutting it to cross over and transport contraband. They also stole parts of the fence.

Her department had followed an emergency procurement process that entailed the appointment of the required service providers through a negotiated procedure.

It awarded the contract to a company that was already doing work at Beitbridge on the premise of an existing contract, which it said was determined through a competitive bidding process in 2016. This was in line with Treasury regulations and that an ordinary procurement process would have taken longer.