South Africa

MAVERICK CITIZEN: To avoid a repeat of PPE corruption, vaccine procurement and roll-out have to be transparent

Vaccine procurement process under the spotlight as roll-out transparency is questioned. (Photo: / Wikipedia)

The irregular and corrupt procurement process around personal protective equipment (PPE) during the initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic has made many South Africans and civil society distrustful of whether the vaccine procurement and roll-out will be any different.

The issue of potential corruption in the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines in South Africa was the subject of a webinar recently hosted by Corruption Watch. 

Participants included the head of legal and investigations at Corruption watch, Karam Singh, the director of the African Public Procurement Regulation Research Unit at Stellenbosch University, Prof Geo Quinot, and the deputy director of the African Procurement Law Unit at Unisa, Dr Allison Anthony.

Opening the discussion, Singh said it was precisely because of the Special Investigating Unit’s report on PPE showing corrupt procurement processes that questions around vaccine procurement and roll-out needed to be asked.

Singh said that Corruption Watch approached Prof Quinot – as a procurement law specialist – to write a paper on, ‘What we should know, but don’t know, about Covid-19 vaccine procurement and roll-out’.

Singh said “perhaps it is through the interrogation of the correct questions that we can sharpen our advocacy and make the appropriate demands to government to give us answers that address the fundamental trust deficit that exists when it comes to addressing corruption”.

Singh said Corruption Watch had sent letters to Treasury asking about Covid-19 procurement, and that while they had received some detailed answers, there were still questions left unanswered.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has really highlighted the challenges facing public procurement in South Africa,” said Quinot. He quoted from the report of the Auditor General, which said “there are clear signs of over-pricing, unfair processes, potential fraud as well as supply chain legislation being sidestepped, and that delays in the delivery of PPE and quality concerns could have been avoided through better planning and management of suppliers”.

Quinot said the vaccine procurement process needed to be viewed in two ways – procuring the vaccine itself and procuring services for the roll-out, which would ordinarily be two separate processes. However, this is now one process which has been centralised with the national department of health (NDoH).

Quinot stressed it was important for everyone to note that the national procurement process for goods and services above R500,000 needs to be published in the tender bulletin and portal with the requisite criteria, functionality, process offered and empowerment status clearly indicated. 

The process does, however, allow for deviations in cases of emergency or where there is only one existing supplier under Treasury’s instruction.

“One can certainly understand the move to centralise the procurement behind the vaccination programme, especially given the experience during the highly decentralised procurement in the early responses. 

“However, uncertainty remains around the exact role of provinces and to a limited extent also the private sector,” said Quinot.

Expanding on the role of provinces, Quinot said that “Western Cape had established a framework for provincial contingency vaccine acquisition and procurement to supplement the national acquisition plan. 

“It is unclear whether other provinces, or other organs of state for that matter, are also considering such additional vaccine procurement programmes.” He added that there was no law providing for mandatory participation in centralised procurement in South Africa.

Quinot pointed out, however, that there was no real chance of anyone else acquiring and distributing vaccines because manufacturers were only engaging with central government.

Dr Allison Antony reminded webinar participants that the Constitution obligates government to conduct its duties in an open, transparent and accountable manner. 

Procurement law specifically states that “when organs of states contract for goods and services, they should do so in accordance with a system which is fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective”. 

This, said Anthony, is what forms the basis for citizens to be able to ask government questions about its procurement processes.

Anthony also said she would like to dispel the notion that citizens have no right to be privy to the final contract between government and a supplier. 

She said by virtue of the sheer amount of public money awarded in these contracts, the public has every right to know the terms of the contracts in order to be able to determine whether the processes were fair and equitable.

Anthony said she felt the centralisation of procurement might actually result in greater opportunities for corruption, and that including specifically identified organs of state and private sector players would ensure a faster and better quality procurement process. DM/MC

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