Computing

DST accused of 'capturing' CSIR supercomputer tender

Read time 3min 40sec
There appears to be lack of recognition that the checks and balances of good governance at the CSIR are so robust, says outgoing CEO, Sibusiso Sibisi.
There appears to be lack of recognition that the checks and balances of good governance at the CSIR are so robust, says outgoing CEO, Sibusiso Sibisi.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's (CSIR) supercomputer, which was unveiled last month as Africa's fastest computer, is making the headlines for the wrong reasons.

The supercomputer is at the centre of allegations that the department of science and technology (DST) wanted to bypass the research institute's internal procurement processes to award a tender to a company of its choice.

According to an amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism report published by Daily Maverick, CSIR's CEO Sibusiso Sibisi is accusing science and technology minister Naledi Pandor and director-general Phil Mjwara of trying to "capture" the CSIR and meddling in a R116 million tender.

In a five-paged letter addressed to CSIR staff that ITWeb is in possession of, Sibisi says "all is not well" at the respected research institute.

The supercomputer behind the storm is the 40 000-core one petaflop Lengau system designed to open new research avenues and stimulate private-sector projects. It received international recognition last week by being placed 121st on the TOP500 List at the International Supercomputing Conference in Frankfurt, Germany.

Sibisi alleges that Mjwara, approached him to discuss a tender that had been put out by the CSIR for the provision of high-end computing equipment to be housed at the CSIR's Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) in Cape Town.

He [Mjwara] was at pains to point out that he was merely conveying a concern from named sources that it appeared that the CSIR was not going to award the tender to a "named provider", Sibisi alleges.

The supercomputer contract was finally awarded to Eclipse Holdings, which used Dell Technology. Sibisi told his staff: "The provider [Eclipse] was not the one that came up in the conversation with the DG."

In the letter, Sibisi also announces that he will be stepping down after 15 years at the organisation.

"The launch of the new CHPC facility took place recently, to well-earned media coverage. The provider was not the one that came up in the conversation with the DG," he notes.

"More recently, I pointed out to the DG that his department - the CSIR's line department and the provider of funding for the CHPC - is where the first line of defence against undue influence ought to reside. It is, thus, a profound irony that he should find himself acting as a dutiful messenger to convey thinly veiled attempts to subvert our internal procurement processes."

Franz Kafka's The Trial

Sibisi then notes that there appears to be a lack of recognition that the checks and balances of good governance at the CSIR are so robust that "even if I wanted to sway a procurement process, I really would not be able to".

To gain direct control on the levers of power at various levels within the CSIR, one would first have to dismantle the current system of checks and balances and sack a good many principled people in the process, he notes.

Given that the CSIR's success is underpinned by the tightly coupled principles of good science and good governance, dismantling the latter would almost certainly result in destruction of the former, he adds.

"The CSIR would become a shadow of its current self. Those who would capture the CSIR would be doing so at the peril of presiding over institutional demise.

"Indeed, the past few months have been so surreal that I initially felt like I had been thrust into Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but it rapidly became clear that the reality is considerably more unsettling than the eccentric but charming world of Wonderland," says Sibisi in the letter.

"A more fitting metaphor is to be found in Franz Kafka's masterpiece, The Trial, in which the protagonist Josef K, a staid chief financial officer of a bank, finds himself arrested and tried for a crime that is never revealed to him."

Click here to read CEO Sibusiso Sibisi's letter to CSIR staff.

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