The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) briefed the Committee on the Visa Facilitation Service (VFS) contract, on progress made with the implementation of an E-Visa system, and provided further details on the Gupta family naturalisation issue.
With regard to the VFS contract, the Department reported that on 14 December 2018 they had extended the service agreement with VFS Global for a further 24 months, effective from 1 January 2019. This was legally provided for under clause 11.2 of the agreement. Certain factors had been taken into consideration, such as infrastructural, operational and financial commitments, and maintaining DHA operations. The Department’s supply chain management (SCM) processes had been observed prior to the extension of the contract. An ad hoc Bid Adjudication Committee (BAC) had discussed and resolved to support the recommendation for the extension, subject to certain conditions. Through a consultation process, various short-term options were explored with a view to retaining the current scope of services on a month-by-month basis. Pivotal to each consultation was the investment VFS had made to establish the current Department services footprint – estimated at R428 million – with lease and operating costs being offset through sustainable, fixed term operations or services. Short term contracting would significantly influence risk exposure and reduce the viability of the business model. The minimum period that the Department and VFS could mutually agree to, was 24 months.
The Department said that the next step was the move towards a Public Private Partnership (PPP) for the appointment of a service provider. It had to implement the guidelines of the National Treasury. Immigration services were in the process of dealing with the PPP project cycle as prescribed in the recommendations received from the National Treasury in October 2018. The process was, at the time of the brief, at its first stage of initiation, with a PPP registration letter to the National Treasury.
Members felt that the Department had deliberately created a monopolised visa process. This had destroyed job creation in South Africa, because the deal meant that several local companies providing visa services had had to close their doors. Members likened the VFS to the South African Social Security Agency’s (SASSA’s) controversial dealings with Cash Paymaster Services (CPS). It was a shame to the nation that the Department had no capacity to process visas on its own. Taxpayers’ money was being wasted on promoting the country overseas, but South Africa’s visa regime was a barrier to tourism.
With regard to the Committee’s deliberations on the Gupta family naturalisation draft report, Mr Ndifelani Dombo, a back office administration clerk, provided testimony regarding the origin of the letter written by Mr Chawla in support of the application, which had found its way to the office of the Minister. He was asked to give the Committee all the information he had with respect to the Guptas’ application processes.
Mr Dombo testified that he had never been to the Guptas’ Sahara office, and that he had never taken forms from the Department to the Gupta family. After detailing his role in the processing of applications, he said the Guptas’ applications indicated that they had been submitted to the DHA’s Pretoria office, and had been received via the post office. The applications for naturalisation had been filed with the local office in Alexandra, and the forms had been signed at Sahara. He was not aware if the Guptas had gone to Alexandra to file an application physically. He also agreed that he had received a letter from Mr Chawla which had been addressed the Minister, requesting him to waive certain conditions.
Based on the testimony provided by Mr Dombo, the Committee was in agreement that the applications had come from the Alexandra office; that the letter was addressed to the Minister but had been read by Mr Dombo, who had considered and acted on it; and that the applications had been signed at the Sahara office. The Committee resolved to find out who had received the applications and processed them at the Alexandra office.
The Chairperson said that the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Tourism had joined their meeting because they would be dealing with visas, which affected tourism. He acknowledged the presence of the Deputy Minister and accepted an apology from the Minister and the Acting Director General.
The resolutions or recommendations taken by the Committee would be reflected in the legacy report. With a legacy report, the new Committee would have a base on which to start its work.
On the Visa Facilitation Service (VFS) contract, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) had not followed the recommendations of the Committee, and the Committee would like to know reasons why. The issues were no different from those being investigated by the Zondi Commission, because the VFS had been monopolised and no one who knew the reason why. When Members raised the issue of monopoly, the Department looked at Members as if they did not know what they were saying. The engagement with Parliament had been undermined.
On the question of the Guptas, this matter could have been closed a long time ago, but there was the problem of one witness who was based in India, and who could not be brought back to the country to testify. That witness was Mr Chawla. That witness could be able to help the Committee. There was another witness who would give testimony before the Committee on matters that were left uncovered by the Inquiry. He was Mr Ndifelani Dombo.
Ms Fatima Chohan, Deputy Minister, apologised on the behalf of the Minister, who had gone to Zimbabwe to attend a meeting, and for the fact that she would be leaving early.
DHA briefing on Visa Facilitation Service (VFS) contract
Deputy Minister Chohan said some of Committee Members, including the Chairperson and Mr M Hoosen (DA), had expressed their reservations about the VFS contract. However, Members should note that there was the principle of the separation of powers, although the comments and inputs of the Committee were considered. Given the separation of powers, the Department had concluded the contract and this had been done on the basis of the legality of contractual obligations and legislative provisions. The Chief Financial Officer would be briefing the Committee on the status of the agreement between the Department and VFS.
Mr Gordon Hollamby, Chief Financial Officer (CFO), said that he was speaking on the behalf of the Acting Director General, and that Mr Richard Stoltz, Chief Director: Immigration Services, would take the Committee through the presentation.
The Chairperson said that Mr Hollamby should speak on the record, and should therefore start the presentation by stating his name and his position in the Department and whether he was mandated by the Minister to speak on the behalf of the Acting Director General. If yes, he should furnish a letter, mandating him to speak, to the Chairperson.
Mr Hollamby responded that he was afraid he had not come along with a letter. However, he was leading the delegation of the Department. He reiterated that Members would be taken through the presentation by Mr Stoltz, who was Chief Director in the office of Mr Jackson McKay, Deputy Director General in the Department.
The Chairperson asked what the role of Mr McKay was.
Mr Hollamby responded that Mr McKay was acting as Director General (ADG). He had been requested to do so has the Minister was away and the ADG was sick.
The Chairperson commented that the CFO could not speak without a mandate. The authority of the CFO should be clarified.
The Deputy Minister stated that she could not clarify the authority of the CFO as acting DG. The CFO should clarify his authority by himself. She was, however, aware that the ADG was sick and hospitalised; that the Minister was away; and that the CFO would speak on behalf of Mr T Mavuso.
The Chairperson said that the appointment of speaking on the behalf of the ADG was not done properly, as required by law. He would be regarded as a CFO, and not acting as the DG.
Mr Gumede supported this view. He said it would have been better if one of the Deputy Directors General (DDGs) could have been acting as the DG, and not the CFO.
The Chairperson said that the absence of the Minister and the ADG made it difficult to deal with certain serious major issues, especially the appointment of the VFS for another two years. He agreed that Mr Stoltz should take Committee through the presentation. Discussion of the extension of the contract of the VFS would have been engaged in in the presence of the ADG, who was the authority of the Department.
Mr Stoltz took the Committee through the presentation. He said that on 14 December 2018, the Department had extended the services agreement with VFS Global for a further period of 24 months – effective from 1 January 2019 to 31 December 2020. The extension of services agreement was legally provided for under clause 11.2 of Agreement. The clause stated that:
“…This agreement may be renewed by the [Department] upon written notice to VFS at least sixty (60) calendar days prior to the expiry date of this Agreement for successive renewal periods of 36 (thirty six) months each, or such shorter period as the DHA may deem necessary, on the same terms and conditions then in effect under the Agreement (‘the renewal term’).”
On basis of this clause, the contract with VFS had been extended. There were certain factors that were taken into consideration. The Department gave due consideration to the infrastructural and operational commitments, financial commitments, and maintaining DHA operations. Its supply chain management (SCM) process was observed prior to the extension of the contract with VFS. An ad hoc Bid Adjudication Committee (BAC) meeting had been convened on 12 December 2018 to consider a “Request for approval for the extension of the VFS permitting business partnership contract for twenty four (24) months.”
The BAC had discussed and resolved to support the recommendation for the extension of the contract with VFS Visa Global for a period of 24 months, subject to the following conditions:
Business unit to submit to the BAC the public private partnership (PPP) project plan;
Business unit to submit quarterly progress reports on the PPP project plan to the BAC;
Business unit to benchmark with other countries that provide similar services for best practice;
Business unit to consult the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer regarding the 24 months’ contract extension with VFS Global.
Business unit to approach the National Treasury Budget Office, in consultation with the Chief Financial Officer, with regard to the registering of the PPP process.
Business unit to submit to the BAC a request for the appointment of Bid Specification Committee (BSC) and Bid Evaluation Committee (BEC) members for the PPP process.
On top of this, there had been consultation with the service provider. Though a consultation process, the DHA had engaged with the VFS management on multiple occasions between October and December 2018 to reach an agreement on the period of the contract. Various short term options were explored with a view to retain the current scope of services on a month-by-mouth basis. Pivotal to each consultation was the investment VFS had made to establish the current DHA services footprint – estimated at R428 million – with lease and operating costs being offset through sustainable, fixed term operations or services. Short term contracting would significantly influence risk exposure and reduce the viability of the business model. It was a fact that VFS had advanced negotiation for a period of 36 months on the basis of such complexities, which the Department could not agree to. Therefore, the minimum period to which the Department and VFS could mutually accede, was 24 months.
The next step was the movement towards a PPP for the appointment of a service provider. The Department had to implement the guidelines of the National Treasury. In doing so, the BAC conditions were being implemented. Immigration Services was involved in the processing of the PPP project cycle, as prescribed by the National Treasury. The actions of the Department were aligned to the recommendations received from the National Treasury of 25 October 2018.
The process was, at the time of brief, at its first stage of initiation, with a PPP registration letter to the National Treasury.
The Chairperson asked when the contract was concluded.
Mr Stoltz responded that the contract was initially concluded in 2010, and had been operating for eight years.
The Deputy Minister responded that when she was appointed in November 2010, the VFS was not operating. She had asked Mr Mckay to check and verify the exact date on which the contract was signed and when the first services were delivered. She said that there were two different contracts that needed to be clarified.
Mr Stoltz responded that the international contract was signed on 3 November 2010, while the local contract had been signed on 2 December 2010. The contracts had been signed by the then DG.
The Chairperson said that he understood that the VFS had again been contracted for two years with a view to launching the PPP arrangement. There were two things that needed to be dealt with. The first one was monopolisation of the VFS, and that there were no other players as required by section 38 of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA). The section stated that there should a tender open to the public.
There were a lot of issues arising from the extension of the contract. Who took the decision to extend the contract? There were also the findings of the Auditor-General (AG). There was a problem that everyone who wanted to apply for a visa should do so through the VFS. It was not clear what the VFS was charging to process a visa, and the Department would say that that was not part of their business. It was problematic that there was no regulation put in place to regulate the pricing of applications for visas. VFS was thus charging a lot of money. In Nigeria, for example, and their offices in Mumbai would receive about 3 000 applications per day, and the capacity of the office was to process 60 visas per day. If the South African Airways (SAA) flew to Nigeria – in and out – it would go empty.
The Committee had no problem with the VFS, but had a problem with the Department proclamation. There had been a deliberate proclamation by the DHA. The Committee should understand what a common problem was. The question was that the Department was paralysed and had no capacity to process visas any more. When Parliament considered these issues, it would make recommendations. The person who had signed the contract was not present. There were a lot of players who want to do this work, but opportunities had been closed down.
Ms D Raphuti (ANC) said that in November 2018 the Committee had taken a resolution. She understood that the Committee should not engage in the daily running of the Department, but it had made a resolution that a contract should be renewed on a monthly basis. She was asking herself if a contract of two years was fair and just for the community. In November 2018, the contract was about to end. What did the Department do about this contact? Was the tender advertised? Was there no other company that could offer the same services? It looked like the Department wanted to monopolise the service. Were there no other companies that could have undertaken to provide similar services? She remarked that the VFS had no love for South African citizens. It was not patriotic. Were there no other small patriotic companies that could be offered the tender? Why did the VFS not incubate small companies?
Ms N Shabalala (ANC) said the question in her mind was that on 14 December 2018, the DHA had concluded a contract with the VFS. There had been a pile of visa applications that were outstanding. How would these issues be resolved? What was the role of the VFS to ensure that the backlog was dealt with? The Department had not taken the precaution of offering the tender to other companies. The tender could not have been advertised in December 2018, because it would have been too late. A tender could have been advertised a bit earlier. The Department claimed that the contract had been extended because there was no time to advertise the tender. As a result, the contracted was extended for 24 months. She said that the 24 months’ contract was around the corner, and asked what the DHA was doing to ensure that the tender was advertised. What measures were in place if the contract came to an end? This was still time to advertise to see whether there were other companies that were interested.
Mr A Figlan (DA) seconded Ms Raphuti’s comments. He asked who the owner of the VFS was. Was any notice given out for other companies to apply? In the presentation, it was mentioned that the Department was not paying the VFS. If this was the case, how did the VFS make a profit? Was it not charging exorbitant fee to process the visas? Was the fee decided by the VFS, or by the Department?
The Chairperson remarked that there was no pricing policy, and this had resulted in exorbitant pricing of visas. There were people who were paying thousands of rands in order to apply for a visa to come to South Africa. What had the Department done to ensure that it issued visas on its own? What measures had been put in place to ensure that the DHA processed visas? Sometimes people lost their documents and had to apply again. When they re-applied, they were charged a lot of money. There could be an exciting presentation on what measures were being taken by the Department to process visas on its own. It was an embarrassment to the nation that many people who applied visas to come to South Africa could not be provided services.
Mr Hoosen said he had a lot of questions about the extension of the VFS contract. Previously, he had asked the Minister on which date the VFS had first been contracted, and who had signed the contract. The date he got was 5 September 2013. They were being told that there was a contract dated 2 December 2013. Where was the contract of 5 September 2013? Was there any other contract which had not been submitted to the Committee? There was another contract that was signed on 3 November 2010. This might be the first contract that had been signed. It was an international contract. Was the tender advertised for local and international contracts? The tender was advertised in 2013. Previously, he had asked Mr Apleni, the then DG, why no approval was sought from the National Treasury prior to contracting the VFS. He responded that there had been no need, because there was no additional cost. It looked like Mr Apleni’s interpretation was wrong. Today, the Department was saying that there was a need for the approval of the National Treasury.
There was a big picture involved in the extension of the contact. This picture was creating the monopoly. Everyone spoke about the creation of jobs with tears in their eyes in Parliament, but nothing was done about creating jobs and putting money where their mouths were. The VFS was not providing technical, technological and scientific work; anyone could do the same job. Why had international companies been contracted? The outsourcing of the VFS had destroyed job creation in South Africa because the deal meant that several local companies providing visa services had had to close their doors. There were a number of immigration companies that were providing the services. These companies had closed their doors and people had lost their jobs. When the contract was extended locally, there was no reason why it should have been extended at the international level. Foreign nationals who were unable to get services from the Department, had to go to the VFS office. Outside South Africa, there were many offices of the VFS in every corner of the world. The Committee should make sure that it destroyed the monopoly established by the Department.
Ms L Makhubela-Mashele (ANC) said that she would like to know how visas were processed at the international level, especially for visitors who wanted to come to South Africa. World tourism had grown 3% in the previous year, but South Africa could not benefit from this figure. The figure of tourists who came to South Africa had not grown, and this was due to the fact that the Department (or VFS) could not process visas. Tourists had no alternative but to go somewhere else.
South Africa had adopted stringent measures that made it difficult for tourists to come into the country. These measures were additions to the stringent immigration law provisions. However, the immigration law measures had recently been relaxed. The whole process of visa application was complicated. On top of this, the Department had stated in its presentation that it had no capacity to process visas. This was contrary to the President’s statement in the State of the Nation Address (SONA) that the tourism sector had to grow. He even stated the number of tourists that ought to be targeted per annum. He understood that South Africa should be the tourist destination. The same strategy was applied by China and India. The growth of the tourism sector remained rhetoric if the Department had no capacity to issue or process visas.
All the problems lay with the monopolisation of visa processing. The Departments were not talking to each other. There was nothing done by the Department to ensure that the number of tourists increased and that the economy was therefore able to grow. It seemed like the Department of Tourism was doing something that the DHA was not interested in. It was claiming that it had no capacity to process visas without VFS, and this was a shame to our democracy, because the Department had created monopoly. It was the Department that had created one player to monopolise the service.
If South Africa wanted to develop its economy, the tourism was a vehicle to stimulate economic growth. The tourism industry surpassed the mining industry in contributing to economic growth. It should be able to promote the economy through facilitation of the easy processing of visas. That was if South Africa wanted to create jobs. South African tourism would not be able to meet its five strategic objectives. It was advertising the country overseas,, but was not able to get them into the country. The taxpayers’ money that was used to advertise South Africa was being thrown away. That was the main problem. The VFS was like the South African Social Security Agency’s (SASSA)’s controversial dealings with Cash Paymaster Services (CPS). The capacity to facilitate visas should be brought back to the state – it should not be in the private sector.
The Chairperson said that the country was facing a huge problem of unemployment and the question raised by Ms Makhubela-Mashele, Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Tourism, should be responded to. Her comments formed the basis of the main concern. All local companies that were processing visas had been closed in favour of the VFS. The closure had come as a result of the amendment of the law that sought to monopolise the provision of services. Someone had even approached the Office of the President to convince them that the VFS was the only entity capable of processing visas, with a view to stopping this Committee from looking into the issue. He agreed that the VFS was monopolised in the same fashion of the SASSA. The Department should leave this meeting after illustrating the measures that would be put in place for the DHA to process visas.
Mr M Kekana (ANC) said that the monopolisation of visa processing was painful. Members understood the separation of powers. In this context, the Department should understand the power of the Committee. They should understand that they could not act as they pleased. All Members and the Department officials present in the meeting had been here when they discussed the matter, followed by the Committee’s resolution. The resolution had been undermined by the Department. Members should not go too far, because the Department’s body language was saying something different. The Committee had heard the brief from the Auditor General. The AG had proposed the same recommendations as those of the Committee. There had been reports issued to justify the position of the Committee and AG. The Committee’s role was to review and monitor the Department and supervise its policy implementation. It was evident that the Department was sabotaging the tourism sector, as well as the economy.
Ms B Dambuza (ANC) said that she was disappointed by the presentation. It was not the first time Members had been briefed on the same issue. Members had been commenting and commenting, but nothing had been done by the Department. What could be inferred from the presentation was that Parliament was not being taken seriously. The President of the Republic was not being taken seriously, too. How could they go to the President to mobilise his office to support their position of monopolising the visa process? The Committee should take this seriously and make a strong recommendation on it.
The question of unemployment should be taken into consideration when the need arises to advertise tenders. Preferences ought to be given to those who could employ people. There was also the question of the cost of processing an application for a visa, because no one had advised the Committee on how much they were charging for visas, or how the visa fee was arrived at. People were complaining about the fee charged by the VFS. She disagreed with the presenter that the VFS was an effective and sufficient company to process visas. This was contrary to the survey conducted by the Auditor General. If they were stating that the VFS was sufficient and effective, the DHA was irresponsible and inconsiderate. She believed that the PPP project would not work. The VFS was not sufficient in the eyes of the Committee and the AG. There was a good report developed by the AG, and recommendations therein. The Department should take charge.
Mr D Gumede (ANC) agreed with all the comments. He disagreed with the position of the Department on a number of issues it had addressed. He recalled that the VFS had been contracted to facilitate the processing of visas, but its mandate had gradually been expanded. It now had a huge mandate.
The Chairperson said that the Department should respond first on whether they had considered the resolutions of the AG.
Ms S Nkomo (IFP) was happy that the Chairperson of the Committee on Tourism was present. She was a member of that Committee too, and had therefore made a request that the Chairperson could be present at this meeting. She was happy with her inputs. It was clear that the DHA was acting as it pleased. It was listening to no one, because the VFS had no competitors.
Ms Makhubela-Mashele said she had heard the presenter saying that the VFS had 45 footprints and that there were two offices to be opened in New Zealand, and that an e-visa pilot would be introduced in New Zealand. Was the VFS facilitating the e-visa on behalf of the Department? What was the progress of the pilot?
Mr Hoosen said that the Department should talk about the court case involving the VFS.
The Chairperson said that the VFS issue should be discussed and closed. The DHA should show the Committee the new direction it would take. It should come up with clear recommendations. These recommendations would be included in the Committee’s legacy report. The Committee had learned that there was a company called DFS that had approached the former minister, and was affiliated to the Guptas. The Department should speak about this briefly, because the Committee did not want to associate with monopolisation.
The rule of Parliament should be taken seriously. The Committee’s resolutions had been undermined. The concerns of the Committee would be communicated to the Minister. He agreed that there was a separation of powers, and that the Committee could not dictate what the Department should do. However, the Committee stepped in if they could see that the Department had gone beyond its boundaries. The PFMA was very clear on the issues of procurement. For the last nine years, the Department had deliberately created a monopoly, and the VFS had been likened by Ms Makhubela-Mashele to CPS. The PPP project had been introduced merely to make Members believe that they were heading in the right direction. The issue was the inability of the DHA to process visas. It was so sad that the Department was strongly defending this position. These issues could be referred to the Zondo Commission, because they seemed to be part of the State Capture Inquiry. It was, perhaps, too late to call for an inquiry into all the officials of the Department.
Mr McKay said that all the Committee’s comments had been noted. The issue of the VFS had been raised on several occasions. As a branch of immigration service, a year ago, the contract was about to come to an end and they had already started the procurement. They had gone through all the processes, from December 2017 until April 2018. They had received a legal opinion that they should stop all processes because they needed to change and take the route of the PPP project. They had had to follow the legal opinion. They could not follow an open tender process.
The issues raised by Ms Makhubela-Mashele were very critical. The Department -- in particular, the immigration branch -- was challenged by incapacity. They did not have enough staff. Human resource incapacity had been there for many years, and this problem had never been addressed. The National Treasury had been approached on several occasions, but there had been no response. This had led to irregular migration, and a lot of money was being lost to deal with irregular immigration. The inspectorate of this country was insufficient. There were many issues around the lack of human capacity, and thus they could not deal with the applications.
The Chairperson said that he knew about that frustration. The issue at hand was the animal called the VFS that had led to the incapacity of the Department to process visas. What was the response of the Department on the fees? Why did it seem that the DDGs had no information on what Members were looking for? Why was it the Chief Director who seemed to have the information?
Mr Mckayreplied that he did not know what the Chairperson wanted him to say. In terms of the contract, there was an amount that should be charged for a visa. It was R400 and something. He did not what the exact fee was. Perhaps it was R425 for a visa to come to South Africa. The company had the model on which they worked. The company would come to the Department and say: this is the country we are working in, this is the place where our offices are, this is how much we are renting our offices for, and this is how much the salaries are. Taking into account all these factors, the VFS would come up with a visa fee. The visa fee varied from country to country.
The Chairperson said that they should agree that the Department would submit a list of fees that were charged for a visa, globally. Was there a policy regulating fees? The issue of the Department’s capacity still persisted. Mr Mckay was not clear on fees that were charged. All missions of the Department had been collapsed. He asked whether the DHA should submit the model applied by VFS in order to arrive at a visa fee that applied to a particular country. South Africa was sitting with a huge number of unemployed people. The money which was being made by the VFS was not contributing to training people or creating jobs. It was clear that the Department had no capacity to process visas on its own. The backlog was so high. People were not able to apply for a visa to come to South Africa.
Members should make their recommendations. They should agree on one thing. The Committee should probably write to the Minister and communicate their concerns and recommendations. The Minister should indicate how he was going to deal with the capacity of the Department to process the visas. The Minister could respond immediately on the contingent plan to create the capacity. The Minister should reconsider the position of the Department.
He felt that these issues should be referred to the Zondo Commission into state capture. It was part of state capture. The Department had deliberately amended legislation to create this monopoly that had killed all the small players. On this note, a letter should be sent to the Minister and should be responded to in a week. In inquiring into Guptas issue, there were these two companies that came up, including the VFS.
Ms Raphuti remarked that the VFS was providing a sub-standard service to the people. People were complaining. The VFS was killing the tourism sector.
The Chairperson said VFS was collecting money from the people, but was not delivering. Some services were incomplete. The point was that the processing of visas should be done in a competitive way. The main issue was the desire of the Department to appoint this entity.
Ms Raphuti agreed.
Mr Figlan was interested in knowing who owner of the VFS was, and asked what the responsibility of the Department to carry out oversight over the VFS was.
Mr Hoosen said he had not got the date on which the contract was concluded. There were different dates: 6 August 2010; 3 November 2010; and December 2013.
The Chairperson responded that the authority that signed the contract had been an accounting officer. An accounting officer was Mr Mavuso, who should respond to these questions. As he was absent, the question about the date of signing the contract should be contained in the letter to be addressed to the Minister.
Ms Makhubela-Mashele said that the letter should also request the Minister to explain issues around the e-visa, especially on how far the pilot project was.
The Chairperson said the Minister should respond to the Committee before it closed for the general elections. The Committee’s recommendations on the VFS should appear in its legacy report.
Gupta family naturalisation draft report: Mr Dombo’s testimony
The Chairperson stated that there was a draft report on the Gupta family naturalisation that had been circulated to Members. In this report, there was one outstanding issue that needed to be addressed. He said that every applicant for citizenship ought to approach one of the offices of the DHA. He did not have information as to whether an applicant could apply through VFS. There had been an investigation to find out where applications for the Gupta family naturalisation had been processed. They could not find that office. There was only a letter written by Mr Chawla. The Committee learned that this letter did not go direct to the office of the Minister, but rather to the bottom office. The office of the Minister never received the Chawla letter directly. There was a contact in the office of the Department who had received it.
The letter in question applied for, or motivated, the naturalisation of the Guptas. In the letter, donations and companies were listed. The Committee had also learned that Mr Chawla had been able to arrange for Indian migrants to come to South Africa. They had come to the country as tourists and ended up working with the ANN7 media company. This relationship with the Department’s officials was a problem. The Committee was unable to summon Mr Chawla to come and respond to the Committee because of the Parliamentary rules. He was still in India.
At the previous meeting, the Minister had stated that Mr Chawla was a permanent resident of South Africa. On the record, the Committee had information that he got citizenship in 2013. There was confusion on the status of this individual. What the Committee was going to do was to request Mr Ndifelani Dombo – who worked under civic services in the DHA – to engage with the Committee on the issues of the application and the letter. He had been invited to testify because he had been the one who had written a letter to the Minister to consider the naturalisation application. He should explain his role in the application, and how the application was processed.
The Chairperson invited Mr Dombo to come forward and take an oath. This was because the Committee wanted to know nothing but the truth. The Committee had learnt that someone had gone to the office of Sahara with certain forms, which had been signed by the Guptas there. Other forms had been signed somewhere else. The main question was who had received their applications at the office of the Department. This should be on record. This was important information for the Committee to close its inquiry. So far, no one – including the Minister, Deputy Minister and the DG – had been able to give that information. He reminded Mr Dombo that the Committee was dealing with an official of the Department, and there was no need to bring a legal representative. Prior to the oath, he asked who the supervisor of Mr Dombo was.
Mr Thomas Sigama, Acting Deputy Director-General, responded that he was. He was an acting DDG.
The Chairperson said that after taking the oath, Mr Dombo should respond to the letter addressed to him by the Committee.
Mr Dombo took the oath.
The Chairperson said that they wanted to have a clear understanding of the application and the affidavit that Mr Dombo had signed. He should explain in which office the application had been lodged, whether the Guptas had appeared in that office, whether the Guptas had joined the queue, and the process that had been followed. He should start by introducing his position and his responsibilities in the Department. The letter of Mr Chawla had got to the office of the Minister from another office.
Mr Dombo said he had been employed by the Department since 2004. He was a back office administration clerk. He had never been to the Sahara office. He had never taken forms from the Department to the Gupta family. The application had been received through internal postal offices, coming from the Pretoria offices. All applications went through postal receipt. They were able to identify the office of application. The office of application could be identified through the postal receipt. On the received letter, all letters came in via post. They were not allowed to receive a visitor.
With regard to the process of naturalisation, they received motivations that were in line with applications that were forwarded to them with supporting documents. Most of them could be addressed to the DG or the Minister. His responsibility included looking at all these documents in order to go ahead with the naturalisation process, and this was what had actually happened. The Department had a call centre or contact centre where people called if they needed to find out general information or information on the progress of their applications. The call centre would find someone dealing with that application at that particular moment. That was what he could say about the application process.
The Chairperson sought clarity on whether an applicant should present himself at the office of the Department. Had the procedure been changed, so that a person need not be present at the office? Could an application be received out of the office?
Mr Dombo said that there was no system of checking the number of applications they received. When an application was received, it would come through an office. The officer sent everything by means of a courier. They would go first to the postal receipt. The postal receipt would receive all applications, and they would be dispatched from there. They would be moved from his section and go to collect the work of that particular day. In his section, there were different units: determination, resumption, and a section that dealt with foreign bases. Work was divided in accordance with sections within the unit. If an application came to their office, they looked first at the receipt of payment, which was attached to the application itself. All the work that they received was submitted to inquiry. The Guptas’ applications indicated that there had been submitted to the Pretoria office. The applications had been received via the post office.
The Chairperson asked whether he had a receipt of payment with respect to the Gupta’s application.
Mr Dombo responded that he had not come along with the receipt.
The Chairperson asked where the receipt was, or who had a receipt. The Committee wanted to know where the application came from. That was a key issue. This was important, because there was nowhere that the application form had been captured and posted. The Committee was aware that the applications had been completed and signed at Sahara. If not, the Committee wanted to know which office the Guptas had accessed, whether they were in the queue and who had attended to them in that office. Mr Dombo should tell the Committee what his role in the Guptas’ applications was. The application had first been considered and then rejected. How did it go through?
Mr Dombo said that in 2011 there had been an issue with decentralisation. This had had to be done. There was a committee established to deal with the adjudication of applications. On the third application of the Guptas, he had been a member of this committee. They had adjudicate the first application and it was rejected. The application was received from the postal receipt.
The Chairperson asked whether all applications were sent to the head office.
Mr Dombo agreed.
The Chairperson asked at which office the rejected application had been applied.
The application was made before decentralisation process. The pplication had been made at a local office.
The Chairperson asked which local office it was.
Mr Dombo responded that he did not have information about where the application was made. He needed to look at the file.
The Chairperson asked why he had attended a meeting unprepared.
Mr Dombo responded that the Guptas’ application was an application for naturalisation which was supported by certain documents. Applications were received from Angoori Gupta, Ajay Gupta, and Shivam Gupta. He did not have a chronicle dates of how they applied.
The Chairperson wanted a breakdown of local offices where the applications were made. Officials should respond to this question.
Mr Figlan asked whether there was any particular thing that Mr Dombo had noticed on the application of one individual. Did he consider these applications individually, or did he consider them collectively as the Gupta family. When he checked the passport photos, did he do so with his spectacles on, or did he take them off?
Mr Hoosen asked for elaboration on the receipt of payment. Was the office where the application came from indicated on the proof of payment?
Mr Dombo responded that the payment was made in Pretoria.
The Chairperson commented that the Committee was seeking clarity from which local office the applications were filed. The Committee should know who received the application and where the payment was made and on which date the application was filed. He believed that the applications had been signed at Sahara. Officials of the Department had gone to Sahara with applications. There were no statements to prove this to the contrary. The Minister said that he had received a letter from another office. The letter was not addressed to his office. There was no evidence to show that it was an honest application. For the record, two brothers had qualified for naturalisation. The Committee did not have a problem with that. However, the mother and his wife had not qualified. They could not qualify merely because they were out of the country for some time. An application for naturalisation as a group did not stand. The question was how these applications were made.
Mr Dombo said that sometimes applications were considered as a group. If they were considering applications and noticed that an application bore the same information as a previously considered application, they would find that application to double check the information on them. This could be done when the application shared the same physical address or surname. After checking all this information, the application would be sent to the adjudication office, and from there the application would be sent to the administrative office so that a letter could be issued informing the applicants about the outcome. The letter went with all the details. The letter would provide guidance on when they would qualify if the outcome was a rejection. That was what had happened with the Guptas’ applications. They were also advised when they would qualify.
The Chairperson said that Mr Dombo was still not stating where the applications had come from.
Mr Dombo responded that on the application document there would be the name of person who had received the application and at which local office.
Mr Figlan asked, when a photo of an applicant was taken, whether the picture would be taken with the applicant’s spectacles on.
The Chairperson established that Mr Dombo did not deal with photos, so he should not respond to questions related to photo capturing.
Mr Dombo reiterated that the application had the name of the person who received an application or who had attended to the Guptas.
The Chairperson asked to clarify the form, which he showed to him, and where the form came from.
Mr Dumbo responded that it was an old form that was used by the Department. It had been completed at the Alexandra office. Prior to 2006, the form had not been sent together with the proof of payment. There was no such proof.
The Chairperson asked whether the applicants went to Alexandra office. Did the Guptas go to the Alexander office?
Mr Dumbo responded that applications came from that office, but he was not aware whether the Guptas had been at that office.
The Chairperson said that the Alexandra office should state whether the Guptas had been there physically. He believed that there was no way that Guptas had been at that office because it was always fully booked. He asked Mr Dombo to state where forms were signed.
Mr Dombo said that the forms were signed at the Sahara office.
The Chairperson asked, if the forms were signed at Sahara, how they ended up at the Alexandra office?
Mr Dombo responded that he did not know.
Ms Shabalala said that the report stated that Mr Dombo was responsible for documents to be submitted to the Minister. How did the letter written by Mr Chawla end up in the Minister’s office? The Minister had indicated that the letter did not come directly to his office. Did Mr Dombo process the application of Mr Chawla to the Minister? If he did, had he observed anything peculiar or unusual?
Mr Dombo responded that he was an author of the submission to the Minister. In the process, the re-application was made on the basis of new information.
The Chairperson asked what the new information could be.
Mr Dombo said that re-application could be made after 12 months, unless there was new information. When the first application was made, there was no motivation letter from Mr Chawla. That was the reason for the rejection. The second application came with the issue of motivation.
The Chairperson asked how Mr Chawla fitted in to the application of the Guptas, as this was a family matter.
Mr Dombo said that the legislation did not bar anyone from writing a motivational letter to support an application, or to ask the Minister to waive certain requirements. The Guptas had not qualified on the basis that they were out of the country. The letter was requesting the Minister to exempt them from that disqualification.
The Chairperson asked why the motivation letter should be written by someone else. Mr Chawla was not a family member. He asked Mr Dombo to read the letter.
Mr Dombo took the Committee through the letter.
The Chairperson said that the letter was addressed to the Minister, and asked how the letter had come into the hands of Mr Dombo. Who had referred it to him?
Mr Dombo responded that the letter had come via post.
The Chairperson asked whether the letter came from the Sandton or Alexandra office.
Mr Dombo responded that he did not know, because it did not come with the proof of payment. After receiving the letter, he prepared the submission to the Minister, but first reported it to his supervisor.
The Chairperson said that it was Mr Dombo who had received the letter from Mr Chawla, and asked whether he knew Mr Chawla.
Mr Dombo responded that he did not know him, and that they had never met.
The Chairperson asked how the letter had been received.
Mr Dombo responded that he received the letter via post.
Ms Shabalala asked whether he had not noticed awkwardness in the letter. In the preparation of the appeal, had he included other people? Had he thought about submitting the application to the Chief Director for consideration?
Mr Figlan asked whether he had made inquiries after receiving the letter, prior to submission.
The Chairperson asked what had influenced him to include other people in the submission made to the Minister.
Ms Nkomo asked if Dombo had the authority to read to a letter addressed to the Minister. Was the reading of the letter done with due diligence? The Minister had indicated that if the letter had come directly into his office, he could have acted differently.
Mr Dombo responded that all the applications came together as a package. They came together as a new application.
The Chairperson asked whether he had sought guidance from the supervisor.
Mr Dombo stated that he had not sought guidance, as he had dealt with the case as he dealt with other applications.
The Chairperson said that a letter addressed to the Chairperson could not be read by a Member. How could he read a letter addressed to the Minister and go ahead and process an application without seeking guidance?
Mr Dombo agreed that the authority to process the application lay with the Minister.
The Chairperson asked whether he was delegated to process naturalisation applications.
Mr Dombo said that he enjoyed a delegated power to do so.
The Chairperson said that the Committee had ascertained that applications came from the Alexander office. The issue the Committee was dealing with was not far from the State Capture inquiry.
Mr Hoosen asked whether, prior to submitting the application to the Minister, Mr Dombo had discussed the matter with other staff.
Mr Dombo said that he discussed applications with seniors.
Mr Hoosen stated that the response was a generality.
Mr Dombo responded that the call centre asked him how far the process was.
Mr Hoosen said that he was referring to a specific discussion arising from the application itself.
The Chairperson said that Members had raised their concerns, and the findings of the Committee were that the applications had come from the Alexander office; that the letter had been addressed to the Minister but had been read by Mr Dombo, who had considered and acted on it; and that the applications were signed in Sahara office.
The meeting was adjourned.