14 officials on carpet over shoddy Beitbridge border fence, says De Lille
An investigation which revealed a litany of incompetence and wrongdoing in the emergency construction of a fence between SA and Zimbabwe has recommended disciplinary action against 14 government officials.
Public works and infrastructure minister Patricia de Lille said senior officials in her department had allegedly committed a range of acts of misconduct during the procurement and construction of the 37km Beitbridge border fence.
This was one of the findings of an investigation commissioned by De Lille after media reports about the inadequacy of the fence.
De Lille released an executive summary of the report on Saturday and said the full document would be sent to law enforcement agencies, regulatory bodies and parliament.
She said the department would pursue “disciplinary, criminal, civil and systemic consequence management” processes against those suspected of wrongdoing.
In addition, the fence would be investigated “in terms of the presidential proclamation mandating the Special Investigating Unit to investigate Covid-19 related projects and bring the matter before the SIU tribunal”.
De Lille said the investigation “has not found any evidence of impropriety on my part and has also not found any evidence to suggest that I benefited personally from this project in any way whatsoever”.
She pledged to ensure that “any official who has been found guilty of any wrongdoing will be dealt in the appropriate manner and will be held accountable.”
According to the executive summary of the investigation report:
- It uncovered allegations of procurement irregularities and fraud committed by departmental officials and service providers;
- As a result of the irregular application of the emergency procurement process the fence cost R40.4m. “At all times, the cost of the project communicated to me was in the region of R37.1m,” said De Lille. “It was only much later that officials informed me of the additional cost of just over R3.2m for the principal agent for professional services and project management;
- Advance payments of R21.8m to the contractor and R1.8m to the principal agent “within days of their respective appointments” were irregular as no material had been delivered and construction had not begun;
- A professional assessment of quantities, drawings and specifications showed they were “not aligned”;
- The cost of the fence was ostensibly calculated based on 2016 prices but ended up costing R14.3m more; and
- Poor design and construction “compromised the effectiveness of the fence as a deterrent for crossing the South African border with Zimbabwe”. It was only 1.8m high instead of the specified 2.2m, and barbed wire coils were stretched beyond their effective limit.
De Lille said on Saturday: “I am mindful that many questions have been raised and that the public has been waiting for the release of the outcome of this investigation.
“Investigations of this nature have to be done thoroughly and due process has to be followed, which can become time-consuming.
“The public has a right to be updated on the progress in order to provide the necessary assurances that I am committed to clean governance and getting to the bottom of this matter.”
De Lille said she requested an investigation by the auditor-general on April 20, and five days later asked the public works anti-corruption unit to investigate as well, assisted by SIU members seconded to the department.
“Before the investigation formally commenced, I requested the department’s chief financial officer and deputy director-general for construction to place a moratorium on all further payments for this project, until further notice, to mitigate any further financial risk to the department,” she said.
She received the draft report of the internal investigation in June and sent it to the auditor-general and the SIU. Amendments were made in July as a result of the feedback received.
“The auditor-general noted the investigation report and advised that his office will conduct further audit procedures relating to matters arising from the report in the context of the annual regulatory audit of the department and will also follow up on the implementation of the recommendations of investigation,” said De Lille.
Earlier this week, DA MP Samantha Graham-Maré accused De Lille of using a special adviser, Melissa Whitehead, to oversee implementation of the Beitbridge project.
Whitehead resigned from the City of Cape Town's transport and urban development authority — which she led when De Lille was the city's mayor — shortly before the outcome of a disciplinary hearing which found her guilty of influencing a tender process and sitting on a selection panel which appointed two of her friends.
“A report by [law firm] Bowman Gilfillan implicated Whitehead in irregularly influencing procurement processes around a MyCiTi bus project, found that she allegedly interfered in the appointment of staff and recommended that she be criminally charged,” said Graham-Maré.
“The DA has been reliably informed that Whitehead was one of the minister’s staff members who were involved in a number of discussions around the R37m Beitbridge border fence upgrade project.
“These discussions included site visits, instructions for variation orders and decisions regarding the scope, costing and specifications of the fence.”
De Lille and Whitehead did not respond to numerous requests by TimesLIVE to comment on the DA allegations.
— Additional reporting by Aron Hyman