Helen Zille defends W Cape tender process

21 August 2011 - 02:51 By Sunday Times

A story has been running through the media this week, after it first appeared on the front page of this newspaper. The article's opening paragraph states that my office awarded a communications tender worth a potential R1-billion to an advertising agency without following proper procedures and regulations.

At a time when the ANC regularly accuses the media of "selective" reporting on corruption, this story was a chance to balance the scales and show that the DA is also "corrupt". The story was definitely worth prominent front-page treatment. Except for one thing: it wasn't true.

The Sunday Times chose to ignore the facts we provided to them when we responded in writing to their questions. Instead, they "cherry-picked" from an internal Treasury document that formed part of a two-year process. Selective quoting, outside of the context for which the document was written, made it seem as if Treasury regulations had been violated and the tender award manipulated by an internal cabal. This is a complete fabrication.

Apart from three material errors of fact in the opening paragraph, the report also claimed the tender was not advertised. Not only did we confirm to the journalist that the tender was advertised (twice) in Die Burger and the Cape Argus, we actually sent the journalist copies of these adverts.

We are still trying to figure out where the journalist got the amount of R1-billion from, particularly since we made it clear to him that the provincial government's communications budget is between R50-million and R70-million a year. This is also not new money. It is the usual amount budgeted for communications.

The article caused an explosion on social networks and in broadcast media, where allegations of corruption were freely bandied about. E.tv opened an interview on the matter with words "corruption, money laundering and bribery"! A tweeter wanted to know where I had stashed away the R1-billion (which rapidly grew to R1.5-billion).

I expressed my confidence that the tender process had been transparent, fair, equitable, competitive and cost-effective. I said we had nothing to hide, and requested the auditor-general to conduct a tender process audit.

I also held a media briefing in which I provided a detailed and contextual history of the process and released a comprehensive set of internal documents used to assess the bid process - including the document used by the Sunday Times.

In short, the bid process was initiated in December 2009 after cabinet resolved that we needed to improve our government's communications within existing departmental budgets.

The fact that this contract was only awarded a year later, in December 2010, highlights the enormous complexity created by laws, regulations and rules that slow down delivery. While this was frustrating at times, our government was committed to ensuring the bid process was fair and met all the legal requirements.

That is why the process was stopped and restarted three times for a number of reasons, including a KwaZulu-Natal High Court ruling that found that price had to be the final deciding factor when awarding a tender.

Once we were sure we had met every legal requirement and the process was as fair as possible, we awarded the contract.

However, when we commenced with work on developing the brand strategy, corporate identity and communications plan, it emerged that the contract with the agency was not "transversal". In other words, it was not contractually applicable to all provincial departments.

Of course, this should have been spotted earlier, and that is when we requested the Treasury analysis, which confirmed the shortcomings in the supply-chain management process and listed the steps we should take to fix the problem. We followed each step as prescribed. Then both the provincial treasury and legal services gave us the green light to proceed and provided a roadmap where all departments would be given various options through which they could participate in the transversal contract. This step is not out of the ordinary. We have used it before and it is permitted by Treasury regulations.

Almost every complex tender is subject to a number of internal Treasury assessments. That is how we avoid corruption and receive clean audits. It is deeply ironic that one of these reports was taken out of context to imply that the DA is corrupt.

While the provincial treasury's assessment concluded that we fell short of best practice when awarding the tender, it also clearly stated that there had been no regulatory violations, and, more importantly, no corruption.

This finding was not included in the Sunday Times article.

Instead, a lot of space was devoted to insinuations about the composition of the bid evaluation committee, all of whose members were chosen because of their expertise and experience in running communications strategies.

The fact is our release of all relevant documentation and our request to the auditor-general to investigate the bid process demonstrates that we are an open government and unafraid to be accountable to voters.

It is easy for people with personal agendas to seek to use journalists to advance their interests. This does not mean that their allegations are necessarily untrue. But it is incumbent on journalists to be extra vigilant that they are being fed the full facts, which often change the picture entirely.