Durban - The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education may have jumped the gun when it announced it was cutting out the middleman in the procurement and distribution of textbooks.
It has now emerged that the fighting that ensued after a supplier was recommended for the contract worth R200 million prompted the department to announce its decision last week.
The overlooked bidders have lodged appeals with the provincial Treasury, and provincial education boss, Dr Nkosinathi Sishi, has admitted that his department might still be forced to award the contract to a managing agent - albeit in a scaled down form - should the appeals process be concluded early.
But there was no crisis, he said in an interview after the announcement.
The department had claimed at the time that it was taking over the procurement and distribution functions to realise savings, which would then be used to buy more textbooks.
The department had initially put the contract out to tender and at the end of that process its Bid Adjudication Committee had recommended a service provider that had made a bid of about R200m.
One of the prospective suppliers told the Daily News late last week that it was “very strange” that the department had made its announcement while there were legal processes under way in relation to the contract.
EduSolutions, the company that previously held the contract, was among the disgruntled companies to lodge a complaint.
Mateli Mpuntsha, a director at African Access Holdings, EduSolutions’ parent company, confirmed this.
“There are legalities and unfortunately, because the matter is sub judice, we cannot divulge any details,” he said.
Sishi said most of the appeals related to “issues of information”.
“The process was taking long and when I realised that we were at risk, that is when we decided to do it ourselves because it does not matter whether we have a contract or not, books still have to be delivered.”
He said it had been a long-term view of the department to take over responsibility for the procurement and distribution of books.
“It just happened earlier than we had envisaged.”
The department had already started building capacity for this, Sishi said.
With the contract under dispute, the department has changed the job description so that the number of responsibilities delegated to the service provider are minimised.
Other functions are to be done in-house to allow for a smooth transition when the department assumes overall responsibility.
The change in the job specifications had meant that the contract was worth far less than before, Sishi said. He said the contract was now worth R200m to R250m or about 45 percent of the R500m the department had previously paid.
This was also because the books being bought are meant to supplement existing stock.
Treasury spokesman, Ntokozo Maphisa, refused to comment on the appeals process.
“If there are appeals, KZN Treasury communicates directly with the parties involved. We are not at liberty to divulge the details of the appealing parties without their written concern,” Maphisa said.
Equality Education, an organisation that advocates for quality and equality in the South African education system, said once the department made a commitment to go it alone, it could not disappoint pupils.
“They must deliver as promised, and on time,” said spokeswoman, Nombulelo Nyathela.
It would not be easy, she warned.
Nyathela said cutting out the middleman would lead to savings and “less finger-pointing” as the department would be directly responsible.
The department, she added, had an obligation to deliver basic education in the province and delivering textbooks was central to that.
“We do not know the exact make-up of this department in terms of human capacity, but we think that in a situation where the department does not have the capacity they must see this as a way to get young people trained and skilled in procurement and distribution. This is a way for government to create jobs.”
However, the National Teachers Union said it was concerned about the department’s plans.
“We don’t know what they mean when they say everything is going to be done in-house. They are not experts in logistics and therefore we are concerned.”
Sishi met the publishers on Friday “to consolidate the department’s decision to procure and deliver the stationery and textbooks without engaging the services of the managing agency”.
The department said it intended to place orders not later than August 15.