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By Nicky Rehbock

While Solly Tshitangano fought a lonely two-year battle, sometimes fearing for his life, the real victims in the sorry saga of Limpopo’s textbooks are the schoolchildren who have lost out half-a-year of education – and will struggle to complete the year successfully. View the full timeline of events here.

Listen to our clip which recently aired on Jacaranda FM.

Solly Tshitangano is a hero; he helped to stop the rot infesting the Limpopo Education Department. He blew the whistle – as early as 2010 – on a questionable multimillion-rand textbook contract awarded to a company called EduSolutions, which has connections to heavyweights in the ruling party.

When our hero blew the whistle, his claims were disregarded; he was seen as a troublemaker and booted out of his job. But, he did not give up. He was finally vindicated in a legal opinion, given to the state in January 2012, that the tender was invalid. It was cancelled on 26 April 2012 and in mid-June 2012, EduSolutions failed in an application to North Gauteng High Court to have its contract reinstated – but by this stage Tshitangano had lost his job, and the provincial education department had bled dry. It was placed under administration in early December 2011.

The real victims, though, are the children of Limpopo, who have lost six months of schooling. And while the legal and political battles rage, with blame thrown around with abandon, they are the ones with the most to lose. One wonders whether Limpopo learners would have received their learning material on time – at the beginning of 2012 – if the relevant authorities had heeded Tshitangano’s warnings earlier.

A brave man’s tale, in his own words

Speaking to Corruption Watch this week as investigators and newspapers tried to get to the bottom of the story, Tshitangano explained that he joined the Limpopo Education Department in June 2009 as the general manager of finance, reporting to the chief financial officer (CFO). In 2010, he was asked by the then CFO of the department, Ian van der Merwe, to oversee a book unit.

At the time, textbooks were procured directly from publishers, and the state received a 30% publisher’s discount. Van der Merwe left the department at the end of February 2010, and from 1 March until 31 August 2010 Tshitangano was acting CFO. It was in this position that he witnessed the questionable awarding of the EduSolutions tender.

“Around April 2010, Limpopo Education Department head Benny Boshielo told me that a decision had been made to outsource the procurement of textbooks. It was shocking news to me. The book unit was reporting to me. Therefore, if I wanted that function to be outsourced, I should have done a cost benefit analysis to see if the government would benefit from the outsourcing. After this analysis I would have been obligated to write a letter to the head of department, either recommending or advising against outsourcing.”

The following month, the tender notice to outsource textbook procurement was advertised in the Sowetan newspaper and in the government tender bulletin. “But as acting CFO, I wasn’t involved in the development of the specifications. On 27 July 2010, after the bid adjudication committee met, a document indicating the preferred bidder was referred to me to consider … The document indicated that EduSolutions met all the criteria.”

ANC connections

Since then, media reports have pointed to strong connections between EduSolutions directors and ANC heavyweights. City Press revealed in January 2012 that EduSolutions was a subsidiary of African Access Holdings, whose directors include Mogopodi Mokoena, a former Gauteng director-general, and Joy Matsebula, a former acting director in the office of the Presidency during Thabo Mbeki’s term, as well as other former top government officials. That article can be seen here.

Another director is Moosa Ntimba, the former CFO of the Government Printing Works, and its chief executive officer, Shaun Battlemann, has strong links to President Jacob Zuma as a champion of Zuma’s RDP Education Trust. Seth Phalatse, its non-executive chairperson, is the former chairperson of the state’s Strategic Fuel Fund and was a shareholder in the controversial Sondolo IT company.

Tshitangano said: “After it was decided that the tender would go to EduSolutions [in July 2010], I was given a two-page document stating the outcome of the bid adjudication committee and a note to say that EduSolutions had met the relevant criteria. I had a serious problem with this – for one, I couldn’t see on this two-page document I was handed, where the state’s discount would come in and why should I consider things that should have been considered before the bid was advertise. I requested a meeting with the bid adjudication committee to raise my concerns.”

In early August 2010, he met the head of department and a bid adjudication official and told them of his concerns. “The head of department said I should not worry about such concerns – they would be sorted out later in the service level agreement. I disagreed with this.”

On 12 August 2010, the department head called a meeting to ask Tshitangano when the contract with EduSolutions would be finalised. “I said to the department head on that date, as I had already told him before in written documents, that the Limpopo Education Department should rather get an opinion – either from the Treasury or state law advisers – so that they could review the awarding of the tender to EduSolutions. I wanted this so I would know that the deal was above board and the decision to appoint EduSolutions was defendable in any court of law.”

Turning to the Treasury

After this meeting, Tshitangano wrote to Nerulal Ramdharie, the head of the Limpopo Treasury, asking that it appoint a team to review the tender. “First, on 15 August 2010, Ramdharie agreed to assemble a team to investigate, but then a day later, the Treasury withdrew its offer – I didn’t know why.”

Around this time, Tshitangano sent out emails to all senior personnel in the education department advising them against the tender. His appointment as acting CFO ended on 31 August 2010, and he no longer had dealings with the deal. “In August, I reported the matter to the public protector and in November 2010 the public protector’s office requested supporting documents from the education department but these were not given to the office until May 2011.

“In December 2010 in my capacity as the general manager of finance, I was asked to release R19.7-million to EduSolutions as an advanced payment. I asked for the agreement stating that EduSolutions should get an advanced payment; when I looked at the conditions and the requirements of the tender there was no mention of an advanced payment.”

The conditions and requirements of the bid must be put in the service level agreement (SLA), but when Tshitangano was given a copy of the SLA, he “saw that there were a lot of terms in it that were not part of the bid”. He wrote to the head of department and the bid adjudicating committee indicating his unhappiness with this, and the head of department signed in recognition of this. Corruption Watch is in possession of copies of these documents.

“Then, around 28 December 2010, the head of supply chain management at the Limpopo Education Department wrote to the head of department about other advertised tenders. It was recommended that those tenders should be cancelled and the material should be acquired using the EduSolutions tender. In other words, they were giving EduSolutions additional tenders through the back door. The CFO agreed – cancelling other tenders and giving the job to EduSolutions.

Questions around the discount

“Around February and March 2011, invoices started coming in to me from EduSolutions. The first was for R108-million – the discount calculated was R32-millon, which the state [would] keep if it was the old system. But now this discount had to be shared; the state would keep around R10-million and EduSolutions would get R22-million of it.”

Also around this time, Tshitangano began corresponding with the public protector, who was following up on his report of August 2010. On 13 April 2011, his offices were locked and the old locks were changed. He was not given access again, and worked from home.

“At that stage I wrote several letters to Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale, the Limpopo education MEC, and the Presidency, telling them that I had compiled a dossier of information on the questionable EduSolutions tender and asked that the allegations be investigated. The general response was that these bodies would look into the matters I had raised.

“I officially received my letter of suspension from the education department on 6 May 2011, although there were no reasons given in this letter for my suspension.”

Then, on 19 July 2011, the head of the education department appointed the “forensic audit company” Neo Africa to probe his allegations. Its forensic investigation cost the department R2.2-million, and reported that Tshitangano’s allegations were unfounded. “The issues I raised were that [in terms of the Constitution, the Public Finance Management Act and Treasury regulations] when an institution of state procures, it must use a system that is fair, transparent, equitable, competitive, and cost-effective. The EduSolutions deal was not in keeping with this.”

The truth will out

Some vindication has come Tshitangano’s way, though too late for this year’s schoolchildren: “On 16 January 2012, the national Department of Education requested opinion from advocate senior council Pat Ellis. He queried why the state was allowing EduSolutions to keep the discount, and he also mentioned the name Tshitangano.” Ellis said it would be irresponsible of the state not to interview this whistleblower.

Tshitangano added: “When I heard this statement of Ellis’s, I felt I was vindicated. I met with the then Limpopo education administrator, Dr Anis Karodia, on 14 February 2012. Karodia said there were two things he wanted to tell me – that Ellis’s opinion that the EduSolutions tender was invalid was exactly as I had advised the Limpopo Education Department in 2010, and secondly, Karodia told me that the Neo Africa report said all my allegations were unfounded.”

Despite Mostshekga assuring EduSolutions on 2 April 2012 that the state would honour its contract, Karodia terminated the agreement on 26 April 2012. In mid-June 2012, EduSolutions failed in an application to North Gauteng High Court to have its contract reinstated.

“This has been a very long and painful journey,” Tshitangano ended. “This all started in April 2010 – and it was only two years later that everybody began seeing what I was seeing. Before that I felt like a psychiatric patient – seeing things that other people couldn’t see. Two years later, the truth is out.”

It has been a difficult two years: “There were times I feared for my life,” Tshitangano admitted.

While Solly Tshitangano fought a lonely two-year battle, sometimes fearing for his life, the real victims in the sorry saga of Limpopo’s textbooks are the schoolchildren who have lost out half-a-year of education – and will struggle to complete the year successfully.