Incompetence or corruption, take your pick

Read time 6min 00sec

Among the joys of journalism are the fortuitous finds of quotation research. For example, in wishing to apply the adage, "never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity," to the scandal over the Free State provincial government's R37 million (or R40 million, or R47 million or R140 million, depending on which day you listened to which liar), the diligent researcher will discover that the idea is neither unique nor undisputed.

Hanlon's Razor, it is sometimes called, after the guy who contributed the phrase for a powder room book in 1980. The name is modelled on Occam's Razor, a more general philosophical principle that says of all possible explanations for a given set of known facts, the one that requires the fewest assumptions, such as evil intent, should be preferred.

Heinlein's Razor, it is called by sci-fi fans who think the sci-fi master's 1941 short story, Logic of Empire, is the earlier and better source: "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity."

Microsoft's Encarta encyclopaedia attributes the quotation to Napoleon, while Goethe wrote, in 1774, "...misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent."

Margaret Thatcher's press secretary, Sir Bernard Ingham, put it aptly and with more English charm: "Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory."

However, Alexandre Dumas reportedly once said: "I prefer rogues to imbeciles, because the imbecile never rests."

Indeed, does it matter to what we ascribe the ludicrous state of affairs in the Free State, where a little-known consortium, most of whose members don't even have Web sites of their own, won a tender against 26 other bidders, and proceeded to build a blog with some content using "the perfect theme for any news, magazine or blog site", on top of a free blogging service, all for the princely sum of at least R37 million, and possibly a lot more? The City of Durban, with its R6.5 million World Cup promo site, is a positive budget hawk, by comparison.

The malice theory, that a corrupt relationship prompted the deal, has some merit. For example, the lucky beneficiary of the people's largesse, Tumi Ntsele, who runs a Web site-less Web site company called Letlaka Media and Communications, promptly played the race card, claiming that opposition parties had an agenda against black businessmen and that the Web site's cost was fair, according to the Sowetan newspaper.

Perhaps it has not occurred to him that people who are aware that Web site design fees collapsed with the dot-com crash more than a decade ago, who see business Web site development and maintenance quotations of four and five figures, and who may even have designed their own Web sites using the exact same tools for free in a spare weekend, really are astonished that someone appears to have swindled the servants of the good people of the Free State into writing such a staggering cheque.

His defensive response, and the extremely low likelihood that none of the other 26 bidders could have done as good a job for a fraction of the price, raises suspicions.

But malice isn't the only explanation. Mere incompetence on the part of the Free State provincial government, the winning bidder, or both, could also account for the scandal.

Mere incompetence on the part of the Free State provincial government, the winning bidder, or both, could also account for the scandal.

In support of the incompetence theory, we have two blog posts by the tech-savvy CEO of Swift Consulting, Liron Segev, who dug into the site's source, to find it full of security holes, spam comments, and broken or missing links. I did some code-diving myself, and can confirm the accuracy of his findings.

Segev even found single static text pages that must have, according to the tender documents, cost R200 000 each. That works out to about R1 000 per word, which is two orders of magnitude higher than even the best PR writer could command for writing corporate fluff.

The Free State government and its super-rich service providers need not feel that they are being unfairly singled out for public opprobrium. This kind of extravagant waste on the part of governments is by no means uncommon.

Last year, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe lashed out at unscrupulous black businesses for abusing empowerment legislation. According to Piet Rampedi, writing in The Star, he said it was "unacceptable for contractors to charge taxpayers R20 million for a public school when the private sector spent between R5 million and R10 million on a similar project."

In the article, Rampedi noted R10 loaves of bread being sold to government for R30, and brooms selling at R500 a piece.

And face it, if Nkandla needed a Web site, would anyone question a similar bill?

A recent survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that 80% of government purchases were bought well above market price.

In the US, Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn maintains a handy "Wastebook" with examples of extravagant government waste, such as public funding for cupcake shops and academic studies on such critical public-interest science as how much better golfers are if they imagine the hole to be bigger, or why people love reruns of old TV sitcoms.

But perhaps the most appropriate example to make the Free State government feel better is the story of the fellow who sold drug and explosive detectors to several governments, including those of Pakistan and Iraq.

The products, still available online, promise users near-infallible detection of just about any hidden substance at almost any distance, using something called "long range electrostatic attraction of highly charged ions". Since it can detect contraband with a weight of a billionth of a human hair, no banknote is safe from its cocaine-tracking prowess. Worth $40 000, not so?

Lawyers before a court in the UK beg to differ. They point out that the scanners are not dissimilar in design and functionality from a $20 novelty known as the Gopher Amazing Golf Ball Finder, of which the purveyor of the magical security devices to foreign governments indeed purchased several hundred. They call fraud, and the defendant, one James McCormick, is in the unfortunate position of not having a race card up his sleeve.

Not that one cannot admire the chutzpah of a fellow who can swindle governments into paying $40 000 for a $20 toy. Or, indeed, paying R40 million for a $40 WordPress theme and some copy.

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