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New tender for student laptops; process under scrutiny

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Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.
Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.

The controversy surrounding the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) tender to supply laptops to students seems to be far from over, despite the financial aid scheme restarting the procurement process.

NSFAS re-issued the tender for over 700 000 laptops after the initial procurement was cancelled last month, following corruption allegations that shrouded the procurement process.

Dr Randall Carolissen, NSFAS administrator, approved the cancellation of the tender, in accordance with Regulation 13 (1) (c) of the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act 2017 regulations.

The new tender, according to NSFAS, will benefit 430 000 students at 26 universities and 300 000 students at 50 TVET colleges across the country. A total of 730 000 laptops will be procured.

In the tender documents, NSFAS says: “The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for the higher education sector in relation to the mode of learning and teaching. To ensure the 2020 academic year continues with a minimum level of disruption, a significant number of educational institutions have explored the option of online learning and teaching.

“To enable and support this imperative and urgent initiative, NSFAS requires suitably experienced service providers with the required capability and geographic presence to supply and deliver laptops to all NSFAS students.”

SME exclusion concerns

However, the new process is already facing resistance in some quarters, with empowerment pressure group in the ICT sector, the National Association of Manufacturers in Electronic Components (Namec), raising concerns on the alleged exclusion of SMEs.

Reacting to the new tender process, Namec says: “The tender requires that only companies with a BBBEE score of one or two should tender but fails dismally to make special concessions for SMMEs or small black-owned companies.”

Godfrey Letlape, Namec treasurer general, comments: “There should be a special dispensation for such companies, which have been decimated by the current economic conditions.The minister of small business confirmed that most of the funds which were earmarked to revitalise small business during the current pandemic went to white-owned companies and failed black business.”

According to Letlape, government should make “a concerted effort to address these anomalies and its policies should be skewed towards the empowerment of small black-owned businesses.

“The tender requires that small black business should demonstrate that they have cumulatively delivered 5 000 units of laptops in their operational history. It is irrational and almost impossible to find small black business with such a historical record. This condition is prohibitive and excludes black businesses,” he says.

In addition, Namec says the tender requires that small black business be audited and/or provide financial statements that have been reviewed by an external accountant.

“This is a statutory requirement for companies with a Public Interest Score (PIS) of above 100.”

Further, the group, whose members participated in the initial aborted process, argues that small companies with a PIS of less than 100 points are not required by the Companies Act to present audited or reviewed financial statements.

“This condition is unlawful in our view and the tender should specify the PIS for companies that should provide such records in accordance with the Act. The condition will certainly exclude black businesses, which have never prepared such records in accordance with the Act,” explains Letlape.

“Government should make a serious effort to empower black business without fear or favour, and it is our demand that a set-aside should be accorded black business in this tender, without the onerous and prohibitive conditions above.”

Undue influence

The wrangle over the procurement process of the NSFAS laptops has been going on for weeks.

The red flag on the tender was first raised by portfolio committee on higher education, science and technology chairperson Philly Mapulane, who said parliamentarians had been alerted to attempts to influence the supply chain process by forcing cancellation of the tender.

“Attempts are being made to manipulate the procurement process, and to finally get it aborted because certain service providers are not recommended following supply chain management processes of NSFAS,” he said.

Two days later, the tender was cancelled, and a new one with “updated requirements”, according to NSFAS administrator Dr Carolissen, goes to print today and will be published next week.

Carolissen said all 150 bid proposals for the initial tender failed to “achieve all mandatory requirements, as per the tender bid description”.

Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande denied there is malicious intent to manipulate the procurement process.

“Although the provision of devices is extremely urgent as part of the government’s response to COVID-19, a formal, transparent, competitive tender process was followed.”

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