R2bn Home Affairs project probed

Johannesburg, 26 Jun 2008

A controversial R2 billion Home Affairs ICT deal faces potential derailment, following its referral to the auditor-general (AG) for investigation.

The "Who am I online (I am I said)" project was awarded to a consortium headed by GijimaAst in October last year. It has since faced persistent allegations of irregularities surrounding the processes followed to award the deal.

Home Affairs minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula referred the deal to the AG, after politicians raised concerns about the deal in Parliament earlier this month.

The "Who am I online" project has been touted as a key component in the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) turnaround strategy. Government has branded the department as "dysfunctional".

The initiative also forms a major part of government's preparations for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

DHA spokesperson Siobhan McCarthy says Mapisa-Nqakula referred the matter to the AG despite the department's belief that the deal was "clean".

"Questions have persisted around the awarding of the contracts even though the department and SITA [the State IT Agency] state they were awarded properly," adds McCarthy. "However, the minister feels that only the AG has the mandate and can make an objective assessment to decide the issue and make a finding."

The DHA awarded the "Who am I online (I am I said)" project to a consortium of companies headed by GijimaAst not long after former SITA CEO Mavuso Msimang was appointed director-general of Home Affairs and former SITA chief of strategic services Jonas Bogoshi joined GijimaAst as CEO. The career moves immediately triggered innuendo.

MPs have also been told the project's cost has escalated from about R1.9 billion to about R2.4 billion.

Meanwhile, Msimang has also had personality clashes with Home Affairs portfolio committee chairman Patrick Chauke. Msimang accused some MPs serving on Chauke's committee of interfering in disciplinary processes involving some allegedly corrupt officials suspended from their posts.

What it does

"Who am I?" could potentially revolutionise the DHA by providing access to two core systems to branch offices and field teams. The national population register (NPR) and the Home Affairs National Information System (Hanis) have, to date, only been accessible to officials at the DHA's Waltloo head office, resulting in the issuance of urgent documentation taking at least a week.

With positive biometric verification at DHA offices around the country, temporary identity documents can be issued immediately.

The NPR is a mainframe database containing the identity records of every living South African citizen, resident and deported illegal, while the Hanis automated fingerprint identification system contains their photographs and fingerprints. Hanis is used to verify identity and acts as a "guard dog" for the NPR.

"Who am I" will allow DHA officials, border guards and immigration officers countrywide to check anyone's identity against the NPR and Hanis. "Who am I" will also simplify the visa application process for foreigners - which is why it is meant to be part of government's 2010 preparations.

Tripped up

The project has been snarled by delays since conception in 2006. Despite the deal being awarded to a consortium consisting of GijimaAst, Siemens, New Dawn, Valor IT and the Ideco Group, in October, the contract is to date still unsigned, as is another deal contracting SITA to provide networking and hosting services.

Msimang's successor at SITA, Llewellyn Jones, who was appointed from outside the organisation, says he is also satisfied the tender was properly adjudicated and awarded.

"We welcome an AG audit and, in fact, a practice we have followed since [my appointment in October] is to call in the AG to assess the process while it's happening," Jones says.

"It is quite possible the AG will go into greater detail [than a preliminary internal probe]. We are not concerned that the audit will show the process as irregular.

"So we don't have a problem at all with the AG investigating. An audit will have to go into much more detail into some of the things we've not necessarily been able to check in the last couple of weeks after this became an issue in Parliament."

Jones reminds critics that SITA is only a facilitation agency. "We don't make the final decision; we don't ink the final contracts." He adds that SITA helped state departments issue and adjudicate tenders through a structure known as a joint evaluation committee.

Overwhelmingly complex

Jones adds that the delays were, perhaps, unavoidable. "I think the delay in contracting is partly because of the sniping from the sides and partly because it is just an extremely complex set of deliverables. When you read that spec, GijimaAst has bitten off a lot.

"If I was running an IT company, I'm not sure I'd be brave enough to have pitched for this one."

In a new twist, "Who am I" also faces redundancy. Requests for bids to - at face value - duplicate some aspects of the project closed last week. The tenders are part of an urgent, but belated renewed e-government push driven by SITA's parent Department of Public Service and Administration. Msimang insists the drive duplicates "Who am I", while Jones says the two programmes are complementary.

The AG's office could not be reached this morning for comment on how long the investigation was expected to take. Mapisa-Nqakula is also currently out of the country. She left for Mexico on Monday night. No senior GijimaAst official could be reached for comment.

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