Court challenge to R1.5bn project: May delay delivery of EC schools

A massive contract for professional services to build some 33 medium to large schools in the Eastern Cape at a cost of more than R1.5-billion has been taken to court.

Seventeen architecture, design and quantity surveying firms, who claim they were not asked to bid, are challenging the award of the contract – which they estimate to be worth more than R200-million – to a single firm of architects.

The department of basic education (DBE) announced late last year that TCN Architects, which has offices in both Mthatha and East London, were the winners of the contract. The challenge may slow down the basic education department’s drive to replace dozens of poor school structures and build new ones in mostly impoverished areas.

It comes at a time when non-governmental organisations and thousands of pupils have been protesting delays in delivery on a project described in court papers as of fundamental national importance.

The 17 firms want the Grahamstown High Court to set aside the contract awarded to TCN on the basis that the process followed was uncompetitive, unfair, unlawful and unconstitutional.

At the heart of the challenge is the DBE’s accelerated schools infrastructure delivery initiative (Asidi). According to court papers, under Asidi the department had in 2012 asked companies – including civil, structural, electrical and geotechnical engineers, as well as architects, quantity surveyors and environmental specialists – to apply to be accredited and placed on the Asidi panel to render services in line with the initiative.

The panel was announced in 2014 and it was from this group alone that the DBE has exclusively drawn for bids for all Asidi-related projects.

The current contested request for proposals (RFP) for the contract, headed DBE07, called for the provision of professional services for the construction of some 33 medium to large schools across a range of disciplines. But, despite the project requiring a range of expertise, the department asked only architectural firms from its Asidi database to submit proposals.

In fact, it is suggested in the court papers that not even all accredited architects were asked to bid. This alone made the contract unlawful, say the 17 firms.

It meant the successful bidder could then proceed to compile a professional team from across all engineering and other disciplines from entities not accredited for Asidi.

Dennis Taylor, director of the main applicant, MMPA Quantity Surveyors and Project Managers, maintains that the project did not, in any event, even fall under Asidi.

He says the nature, value and extent of work required under DBE07 was substantially different to that under Asidi.

“... this project valued at an amount greater than R1.5-billion was awarded to a single bidder selected secretly from a pre-determined group of architects, hand-picked by the DBE from architects accredited under Asidi, a procurement exercise that commenced some four years ago ... for a different scope of work and which involved a range of potentially different actors.”

Attorney for the applicants, Owen Huxtable, yesterday confirmed the matter would be argued on June 8.

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