DG insists R37m border fence, ‘anchored in corruption’, is doing its job

The 40km-long fence at Beitbridge.
The 40km-long fence at Beitbridge.

The Beitbridge border fence, erected as an emergency measure to curb the spread of Covid-19, is being vandalised daily, but director-general of public works and infrastructure Sam Vukela told MPs it is 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,” he said on Wednesday..

Vukela was responding to questions about whether the department believed the R37m fence was money well spent.

The director-general said this despite his boss, minister Patricia de Lille, telling the same meeting of parliament’s public accounts watchdog (Scopa) that her senior management team was receiving daily reports of theft and vandalism thereof.

Did we get the best value for money? That is exactly one of the issues that I have asked the auditor-general to investigate.
Public works and infrastructure minister Patricia de Lille

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

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

MPs questioned the decision to award the contract to the same company that had failed to deliver a proper service in the past, the process followed in awarding the contract and whether it was value for money.

“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 ... 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.

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

Scopa chairperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa said it was obvious 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,” he said.

Hlengwa said it was 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?” asked 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 those crossing between SA and Zimbabwe did so legally.

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 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.

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