While South Africa had systems, policies, laws and the constitution governing the procurement of goods and services for government – with a budget amounting to R800 billion set aside annually – systematic problems and irregularities still existed, national treasury acting chief procurement officer Willie Mathebula has conceded.
Under cross examination by evidence leader Leah Gcabashe during yesterday’s hearing of the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, Mathebula said current policies and laws – open to manipulation by corrupt civil servants serving on tender committees – were not tight enough to stamp out the ongoing graft in government and state-owned entities.
The office of the chief procurement officer in the National Treasury was established in 2013 to ensure transparency, fairness, effectiveness, competitiveness and efficiency in the government procurement system.
At the core of several abuses in the tender system, which Mathebula described as “intentional”, he cited the crafting of tender specifications he said was done “in a biased manner” and deviations from the public tender process.
“There are a number of reasons why there are systematic problems leading to irregularities. Some are intentional, meant to abuse the system and misinterpretation of the rules,” he said.
“What we pick up daily is that some of the bid specifications are crafted in a biased manner. Bid specifications should be general.
“Those involved in putting the bid specification document together should be people who are unscrupulous. The bid committee should be subjected to ethical standards. If I am conflicted, I need to declare and recuse myself from the bid committee.”
Asked by commission chairperson Raymond Zondo on what happened “if someone formulates specifications to favour one bidder to win the tender”, he responded: “To avoid this practice, accounting officers should be made to account, approve specifications to avoid bias.
“This should be part of their performance appraisal. Formulation of tender specification comes with experience. There are officials who can tell when a tender has been ‘cooked’ and send it back.
“I have also turned back a tender because it was ‘cooked’, but not all of us have the experience.”
Another challenge facing the system was deviation by government officials, who avoid going public on a tender.
“Deviations are only allowed in an emergency situation that is life threatening – like fire. But some organs of state see deviation as a way to circumvent the rule,” he said.
Mathebula said National Treasury was “committed to professionalise the government procurement system because we lack experts”.
“You draw people from human resources who may not have background or experience. This often leads to government having to spend monies in litigation challenges,” added Mathebula.
He has pinned hopes to strengthen the government procurement systems on the newly proposed Public Procurement Bill soon to go through Cabinet.
“The proposed Bill is an overarching legislation to be introduced to deal with matters of policy and legal fragmentation on the procurement process,” he said. “It seeks to strengthen governance where there is a big failure.”
The commission continues on Friday.