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Transparent and Accountable Public Procurement under the Constitution

25 May 2017

The importance of a transparent and accountable public procurement process cannot be understated. It impacts the public, in general, in terms of service delivery and a failure to comply therewith can result in the wasting of tax payer’s funds.

What happens where it is obvious that public officials involved in a public procurement process have been corrupt, grossly negligent or otherwise did not apply their minds during the tender adjudication and arbitration process?

This issue is regularly raised, resulting in frequent referrals to Tender Appeal Tribunals and the various courts for a decision and evaluation of the process followed.

One such case is Westwood Insurance Brokers (Pty) Ltd v eThekwini Municipality (8221/2016) [2017] ZAKDHC 15 (5 April 2017). In short, a company by the name of NC South West Brokers CC (South West) was awarded a tender, by eThekwini Municipality, in the sum of approximately R 81 000 000.00, for the provision of insurance for water loss through underground leaks for individual dwelling units. The Conditions of Tender required that a letter of undertaking from an insurance company licensed to operate in South Africa, accompany the tender, and that the underwriter must be registered with the Financial Services Board (FSB). South West, however, submitted a quotation for professional indemnity insurance from Marsh (Pty) Ltd whose registration with the FSB, as an insurer, had not been established.

The tender award was challenged on this basis. The court found that

“whatever [eThekwini’s] motives were the irrationality of their choice of South West is so obvious and egregious that it ineluctably leads me to conclude that the officials knowingly acted unlawfully, unconstitutionally and unethically”.

When the court considered the far-reaching effects of the decision of awarding the tender to South West (i.e. vulnerable people occupying, for instance, municipal and other sub-economic housing schemes having no insurance for water leaks), the court came to the conclusion that it was not advisable for South West to retain the contract.

The court, however, did not stop there. It considered whether the eThekwini officials, involved in the procurement process, had failed to uphold the values of the Constitution and the guidelines provided to them when considering offers from tenderers. The court also considered the obligation of all persons performing public services, to be accountable and transparent.

The court found that both South West and the officials in question must be held accountable for their actions, by way of being held liable for the costs of the proceedings. As such, the court ordered as follows:

  1. South West was held liable for 50% of the legal costs:
  2. The 16 public officials ranging from the City Manager, Members of the Bid Adjudication Committee, Bid Evaluation Committee, the Head of eThekwini Water and Sanitation, Deputy Head Supply Chain Operations, Divisional Manager for Regional Customer Services Water and Sanitation, and the Contracts Administrator were held liable for the remaining 50% of the legal costs, to be paid out of their own pockets.

This case sounds a warning to all public officials who act unlawfully and unethically to the disadvantage of the general public and other suitably qualified tenderers who would have benefited from the process.

Author:  Nombuso Shange, Associate.