The convenient face of corruption

When facts don’t get in the way of a story

Rural Eastern Cape
A fairly typical rural Eastern Cape scene, where thousands of communities live further than 5km from healthcare facilities. Good road infrastructure is often lacking

If you blinked in the past few weeks, you might have missed the complete clearing of any wrongdoing by the company, Fabkomp, which manufactures motorcycle sidecar clinics and ambulances.

This Eastern Cape-based company became the face of corruption when it won a tender last March to supply 100 motorcar sidecar clinics to the Eastern Cape department of health. The first cry came from the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) Jane Cowley. “Scootergate,” she roared. It “smacks of corruption”, she added.

The explosion was immediate and all-consuming. Various media climbed in, fists flying. Twitter and Facebook lit up. The sidecar clinics and ambulances – used throughout Africa and listed among the Top 10 Ideas That Are Saving The World – become objects of cruel, unfounded ridicule in their home country.

Blown off

The project was blown off the road before it started. The R10 million tender was put on hold, not one cent was paid to Fabkomp, and not one unit was delivered to the department. Nevertheless, Fabkomp and its director, Brian Harmse, were ripped apart and accused of corruption.

I outlined the saga in this story, titled “Anatomy of a scapegoating”. I then interviewed Mike Norman, the award-winning founder of the eRanger motorcycles and clinics; find that story here. The eRanger was launched at Nelson Mandela’s home in Qunu in 2003, and my story explains how Mike developed it, who distributes it in Africa (the likes of UNICEF and CHAI), and the good results that have come from its use in remote rural areas.

Mike Norman, the award-winning inventor of the eRanger ambulances and clinics with newly trained drivers in Uganda. Picture: Supplied

A quick word on who owns what: DEmPower LD owns 60% of Fabkomp and Choice Decisions 52 (Pty) Ltd owns 40%; Brian owns Choice. DEmPower is black-owned; 100% of shareholders are people living with disabilities and 54.55% are women. Fabkomp owns 49% of eRanger and international shareholders own 51%. Fabkomp employs 170 people at its factory in Zwelitsha.

The value of these mobile clinics and ambulances is obvious in the largely rural Eastern Cape, where the health system is weak (mostly) and infrastructure, like roads, is poor. Thousands of communities here are further than 5km from a clinic; often, people are taken to healthcare in wheelbarrows. Find a story about real life here.

Milestones on a dirty road

The furore and mudslinging escalated. Whenever corruption was mentioned, you’d likely see images of the eRanger. The fervour in reporting, though, has not been applied to recent developments. And it really does appear that a false narrative is coming from within a state entity (Brian has suggested a personal grudge being played out – and it’s all so bizarre that this could actually be the case). It matters: what’s to stop you or I being targeted next?

Here are some major recent milestones. You decide.

8 September 2020: Via email, Brian Harmse reads a Special Investigating Unit (SIU) founding affidavit to the Special Tribunal. He learns that the SIU is investigating allegations of corruption and wrongdoing by department of health officials and Fabkomp regarding the tender. Brian realises that the affidavit has factual errors, including confusing Fabkomp with the other tenderer (there were two tenderers: the other came in with a bid of R13 million against Fabkomp’s R10 million). Brian estimates that he asked the SIU at least 35 times for his story to be heard. This is apart from his lawyers’ attempts. The SIU has never granted Brian an audience.

Brian Harmse
Brian Harmse in the Fabkomp factory. Pic: Supplied

31 March 2021: The Public Protector issues a report on its investigation into allegations, picked up in media reports, of “improper conduct and maladministration” by the department relating to awarding the contract to Fabkomp. The PP points to the department’s procurement “conduct failures”: a shortened period of advertising the tender; and a lack of approval and reasons recorded for this. The PP mentions visiting Fabkomp and interviewing Brian on 12 August 2020. It does not point to wrongdoing by Fabkomp.

18 February 2021: Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane fires MEC for Health Sindiswa Gomba a week after she appears in court on charges related to corruption around the 2013 funeral of Nelson Mandela. “The decision to relieve Ms Gomba of her duties … will allow her time and space to attend to the case against her,” the Premier tells a news conference. He does not mention motorcycle sidecar units or “Scootergate”.

22 April 2021: In the SIU case against the department and Fabkomp, seeking costs, Special Tribunal Justice L Modiba says: “I’m very sympathetic towards the bona fide tenderer (Fabkomp) … because it is quite apparent from the papers that no case of any wrongdoing has been made against him. And I’m even more sympathetic that he has incurred costs to oppose the proceedings up to this point. And his decision to oppose has not been unreasonable …” She mentions Brian’s claim that the SIU refused to meet with Fabkomp. “That’s a point in favour of Fabkomp because no person who’s implicated should be treated in that manner, and that’s a point that would count in Fabkomp’s favour in not awarding any costs in these proceedings.”

28 May: The Special Tribunal sets aside the tender. Justice Modiba rules: “The decision by the Eastern Cape Health Department to award a tender to the fourth respondent, Fabkom Pty Ltd … for the supply of scooters with side carts … is reviewed and set aside.” The judge does not use the words, “unlawful”, “invalid” or “fraudulent”. Not once. She does not award costs.

31 May: In a media statement, the SIU says the tender “that was irregularly awarded” to Fabkomp “to deliver 100 scooter ambulances has been declared unlawful and invalid” by the Special Tribunal. The SIU’s investigation, it says, “revealed that the procurement process was irregular, unlawful, full of dishonesty, possible collusion and was designed to favour Fabkomp”. The statement says that MEC Gomba was relieved from her duties “since” the SIU “recommended administrative action” … “This relates to their involvement in the procurement of scooter ambulances.” The SIU statement is very different to what the Judge has ruled and the Premier has said. It’s also incorrect in that the tender was for motorcycle sidecar clinics, not “scooter ambulances”. Nevertheless, the SIU statement is obediently, unquestioningly and widely reported on.

1 June: Special Tribunal spokesperson, Advocate Selby Makgatho, tells SABC News that the tribunal “did not make any adverse findings in relation to the fourth respondent, being Fabkomp Pty Ltd … there was nothing that pointed to any alleged wrongfulness or fraudulent conduct on the side of Fabkomp”.

4 June: Brian sends his 18th email to Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA), which the SIU reports to. He requests an audience to make his case to clear Fabkomp’s name – this time following the SIU’s inaccurate media statement.

And this is where it stands.

The obvious question is: why? Fabkomp, it appears, landed in the middle of a vicious political battle.

“The DA and the SIU wanted Gomba out,” Brian says. “Then, the SIU got it wrong from the beginning and would not backtrack … they had already taken their version to the media and had to save face.”

state of roads
Where roads exist, they are sometimes in this condition. This pic was taken in the former Transkei in the Eastern Cape

Easy target

I think there’s more. South Africans have watched appalling corruption and looting of our taxes and state assets – led by people at the top of government – for well over a decade. It carried on even through the COVID-19 pandemic. We may never know the full cost, but a case study estimates that South Africa lost R1.5 trillion through corruption in five years. Only recently are we seeing the beginnings of some prosecution of some looters.

In other words, South Africans are sick of corruption and seeing no-one being brought to book for it.

Along came a smallish company from a basket-case province and it won a smallish tender to supply its fab product to meet needs in rural areas. It was an easy target on which to puke our frustration, with a fervour driven by the snappy rallying cry, “Scootergate”. Levels of frustration are so high that the eRanger has entered the realm of urban legend – even when presented with facts, the ignorant continue to throw stones at it.

Fabkomp, indeed, become a scapegoat.

What’s next?

It makes no difference that the claims of corruption are false; the cloud hangs over Fabkomp. Images of the eRanger are used to say, “Look, corruption”. Recently, I watched an eNCA report on pressure on Health Minister Zweli Mkhize to step down amid corruption allegations in awarding a R150 million contract to a communication company. Lo and behold, the stock footage used was of Mkhize being transported in an eRanger ambulance – as if to rubber stamp his corruption.

Brian says the assault on Fabkomp has had a direct impact on its reputation and its orders, and weighs heavily on staff. It has cost the company around R300,000 just in legal fees.

“This should never be allowed to happen again to any person or company,” he says.

So, this story is not over. However it plays out, people in remote communities will continue to be dragged and pushed in wheelbarrows to health facilities because apparently the eRanger is not good enough for South Africans. As the privileged would say, let them eat cake.

Brian Harmse remembers this picture, which appeared on the front page of the Daily Dispatch in 2013. He says he wanted to change this reality

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