NEWS & ANALYSIS

Pandemic profiteers

Andrew Donaldson says Covid-19 has resulted in a tenderpreneurial outbreak of epic proportions

A FAMOUS GROUSE

THERE are three types of journalists — those who can count, and those who cannot. It’s an old joke, but it’s one that continues to serve me well, and I was reminded of it this week when trying to determine roughly how much has been plundered from the R50-billion Covid-19 emergency health procurement budget. 

It’s an impossible undertaking. Well, for me at least. But I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest around R12.5-billion. 

The figure sort of stuck in my mind after reading Ferial Haffajee’s take on the feeding frenzy in the Daily Maverick on Wednesday. As a journalist who probably can count, Haffajee had anchored her feature on the activities of one Harvey Sicelo Buthelezi, a slick, politically connected individual typical of the crony-virus pandemic.

In 2018, his CV listed his specialities as mining, rail stock, energy and construction. Come Covid, and Buthelezi’s suddenly an expert in the provision of health equipment — despite having no history or experience in this particular sector whatsoever.

But no matter. Where there’s cash, there are contracts. According to Haffajee’s report, one such contract was awarded to Buthelezi’s company, HSB Mercantile, for an array of disinfectants, masks, sanitisers and what have you, at vastly over-inflated prices. This single contract was worth just over R6-million. The Sunday Times, however, claims that Buthelezi has been awarded contracts worth a total of R873-million.

Buthelezi is not alone. The pandemic has resulted in a tenderpreneurial outbreak of epic proportions. Such is the ravening and engorgement at the trough that jokes about commissions of inquiry into corrupt contracts begetting yet more commissions of inquiry are now commonplace. What’s more, they may be not be jokes for much longer.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Given the rapid spread of Covid-19, Treasury dropped its usual procurement rules when the state of national disaster was announced in March. They were replaced with an instruction to provincial treasuries and other accounting officials that the “relevant treasury approval” was not required for emergency procurement that may occur “when there is a serious and unexpected situation that poses an immediate risk to health, life, property or environment”.

Ah, blessed Kwanzaa! And it’s not even Christmas!

True, Treasury did issue a sort of recommended retail price list for the equipment needed, which was either market-related or a little higher. Contained in the attendant bureaucratic stumblebumf is this opportunity for wholesale abuse:

“In terms of paragraph 9.1 of the National Treasury No 3 of 2016/17 — Preventing and Combating Abuse in the Supply Chain Management System, accounting officers and accounting authorities may, under normal circumstances, vary/expand contracts up to 20% or R20-million (including VAT) for construction-related goods, works or services and up to 15% or R15-million for all other goods and services of the original contract value without treasury approval.

For this instruction and the period until the COVID-19 pandemic is declared over, the thresholds are increased to 30% or R30-million for construction-related goods, works or services and 25% or R25-million of the original contract value if the variation is for goods, works or services to prevent an escalation of the Disaster or to alleviate, contain or minimise the effects of the Disaster.”

Cue mark-up orgy. So I’m suggesting an average cadre price hike of 25 per cent. Hence my estimate of R12.5-billion pocketed by the corona-vultures. (The rationale here may be dodgy, but I’m sticking with it.)

Meanwhile, the cynic in me suggests that the Special Investigation Unit’s current interest in the activities of HSB Mercantile and other tenderpreneurial concerns may have been spurred on by the conditions that came with the International Monetary Fund’s $4.3-billion loan. 

White Monopoly Capital — as the EFF’s commander in chief, Julius Malema, labels the IMF — does not readily dole out white monopoly capital to the basket-cased without stringent guarantees of fiscal propriety. For all of Juju’s ranting about neoliberal this and neocolonial that, it’s the IMF’s tom. The government wanted it; the IMF coughed up; so the IMF call the shots.

The perverse bastard optimist in me loves all this. There goes economic sovereignty, the critics say. Good riddance, too. Time to play with the grown-ups.

Ignoble rot

To Groot Constantia, and the unveiling of a new addition to the historic wine estate’s award-winning range — the Quisling. A curious blend of smug and supine cultivars, this presumptuous newcomer has already generated much excitement among oenologists, who have noted the grafting of a vigorous expediency onto the estate’s revered settler root stock.

As is so often the case these days, even in an industry hidebound by tradition, the Quisling’s arrival was announced on social media. “Patience,” the estate declared on Twitter (for patience is indeed a virtue when it comes to the grape). “Much as we love sharing our wines and estate with you, we believe in teamwork and right now Team South Africa is focused on saving lives. At Groot Constantia we are South Africans first, proud wine makers second. #FeelGrootConstantia

Many winemakers who happen to be South African as well are, of course, “#feeling” something at the moment. But it is not “Groot Constantia”. Their reaction to the Quisling is one of anger and disappointment. “As an ex-director of Groot Constantia, owned by the government, I know where this sentiment is coming from,” Springbok rugby legend and farmer Schalk Burger Snr has tweeted, “this is totally deplorable and not based on any sound business acumen — the whole board should take responsibility for any financial losses suffered during this period.” 

Another Burger tweet identified the estate’s current directors and noted their lack of support for the restaurants at Groot Constantia that have been badly affected by the lockdown. Comments from many other prominent wine and hospitality industry figures have been scathing, and there are now widespread mutterings of boycotts. 

Tasting notes for the Quisling are instructive. On the palate, there are strong notes of self-interest and greed. Perhaps paradoxically, a robust spinelessness lingers. The overall bouquet is one of basal earthiness, like a favoured brogue fouled by dog faeces. As for food pairing, it is best appreciated with entrees of bootlicking and grovelling and a heightened awareness, naturally, of the side on which the bread is best buttered. When it comes to a dessert, phlegm brûlée is suggested. 

A monstrous agenda

Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), where our pedestrian tastes run to the trusty Chenin whenever lady petrol must be served, there is concern that the ban on alcohol and tobacco products is not the knee-jerk reaction of a government panicked at its losing battle against the pandemic, but rather part of a carefully planned strategy to destroy the economy of the Western Cape.

First sign that there is such a conspiracy is the ongoing dumbassedness in trying to save South African Airways. At a time when the coronavirus has devastated air travel the whole world over, the ruling criminal enterprise appears hell-bent on funnelling another R10-billion into this dying albatross, in the hope that it will take off and fly again. 

Once Africa’s finest airline, it’s now the object of abject pity, like some despot in a Malaysian blood-transfusion clinic. The only reason it has been on R50-billion life-support for the past 20 years is to satisfy some nationalist nonsense about the display of SAA insignia in foreign airports. Apart from being the “pride” of the nation, there is also some guff that the airline employs almost 6 000 people and supports many small businesses. 

Which is not much when you consider that the wine industry directly employs more more than 350 000 people, with retail, distribution and hospitality accounting for at least the same number of jobs. This is according to wine writer Michael Fridjhon. In a recent Business Day column, he made the point that the impact of alcohol abuse has been grossly exaggerated. 

Last month, police minister Cheek Bile trotted out this porky: “Six hundred thousand people — they die through alcohol in the Republic of South Africa, come every year.” 

The figure, Fridjhon writes, is probably closer to 25 000 alcohol-attributable deaths per year. In fact, in 2016, 456 612 deaths from all causes, mostly natural, were reported in South Africa. Where Bile gets 600 000 annual dop deaths is anybody’s guess.

Bottom line is that patients from alcohol-related incidents take up very little bed space in hospitals, and the pressure on the hospitals’ intensive care units is negligible — “certainly not enough to put the livelihood of 700 000 liquor industry employees at risk and expose their 3 million dependents to poverty and starvation.”

The clearest indication, however, of a plot against the Western Cape is the deployment of Prime Minister Nkosazana Nongqawuse Dlamini-Zuma as the ur-nanny of the National Coronavirus Command Council. All too often, her deceptive simpering and placid countenance lulls the rest of us into complacency. The blandness of her mewling masks a monstrous agenda, and we are now about to suffer the full life-sucking force that is known as Clarice. 

Though she may mumble away about the sacrifices we must make for the greater good, she means to drive the vibrant Spes Bona independence movement into the sea. The cheerful demeanour of a region that feels zip diddly squat for the gat on the other side of the Storms River and the scrub north of the Karoo does stick violently in the ANC craw. Hence, Clarice’s vile plans to drag us back to the 1970s and there pretend we are Tanzanians as we sing Maoist propaganda songs around a camp fire. 

Initiation rites

The ANC has recalled an Eastern Cape municipal official after she was filmed swearing at residents from Magaleni township, near Fort Beaufort. 

According to reports, the area has suffered interrupted and unreliable water supply for the past two months. Much relief, then, at the arrival of a water tanker on Sunday. However, the tanker was directed elsewhere by Lindelwa Penisi, who is the Raymond Mhlaba local municipality chief whip. Residents, who had been queuing with buckets, weren’t too happy about this and remonstrated with her. An angry Penisi then launched her tirade: 

“I don’t care, you can call all those who voted for me. Go ahead, you piece of shit. Hey you, you don’t have a right to say anything because you never voted for me. Fuck you, you uncircumcised boy. Go get circumcised. I am not scared of you. You can go ahead if you like and hire a water tanker from your own pocket. Do it, I don’t give a damn!”

It’s a regrettable tack. A snip of the knife, removing just the tip of Penisi’s surname, would result in unwarranted sniggering in municipal corridors. An unnamed ANC councillor was later quoted by News24, saying that Penisi allegedly “punishes her political detractors by withholding service delivery. If true, then this is very disappointing because, as a leader of a community, she is supposed to help everyone regardless of what faction they belong to.” Or if they’ve made the cut. So to speak.