Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) progress; with Minister & Deputy Minister

Home Affairs

25 August 2020
Chairperson: Adv B Bongo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee was told of a missing master file on a contract administered by the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) on behalf of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA). Members expressed frustration at the length of time it was taking to deal with a finding by the Auditor General of SA (AGSA) that there had been irregular spending.

The Committee was told that the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) had started a project in 2015 to migrate from the current Home Affairs National Information System (HANIS) to an automated biometric information system (ABIS). The DHA had asked SITA to issue a tender for the new system. A contract was issued to the technology company, EOH. During an audit of SITA, the Auditor General had asked to see certain documents on the contract, but these could not be located. This meant that the R409-million contract was regarded as irregular expenditure.

The master file had now been reconstructed and forensic auditors were finalising an investigation into the tender process. Charges would be brought against anyone guilty of irregularities.

Concerns were expressed that EOH was attempting to exit the contract and hand it to a subcontractor, because funds had been exhausted. Members were assured that this would not be allowed, and that the investigation would determine whether the contract had delivered value for money.

Opposition Members expressed dissatisfaction that the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Ms Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, had informed the Committee Chairperson that she was unable to attend the meeting.

The Committee also received written responses to issues raised by a study group on the DHA. The responses disclosed that the Department had been unable to find a suitable candidate for an advertised post of Deputy Director General for Information Services. The responses also dealt with ongoing efforts to deal with refugees from other countries who had staged a protest in the Cape Town city centre and who were now being accommodated in temporary shelters. If efforts to reintegrate them into the communities from which they had come did not succeed, they would have to be repatriated to their countries of origin.

The Committee was told that a multi-disciplinary team had been appointed to make proposals on changes to the electoral system following a Constitutional Court ruling that independent candidates should be able to stand in government elections.
 

Meeting report

Minister on ABIS tender

Opening the meeting, the Chairperson announced that he had received apologies from the Minister and Deputy Minister of Communications, who were unable to attend the meeting. He welcomed the Minister and Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, as well as officials from Home Affairs and the State Information Technology Agency (SITA). He invited the Minister to make opening remarks, commenting that this was not the first time the Committee had met to consider the issue of the tender for an automated biometric information system (ABIS).

Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, Minister of Home Affairs, said he agreed to the need to conclude the matter. The Committee would have to carefully dissect the process which started in 2015, when the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) had started a project to migrate from the current Home Affairs National Information System (HANIS) to ABIS. Hanis could store only photographs and fingerprints, whereas ABIS could store other forms of identification such as iris and facial recognition.

The DHA had asked SITA to issue a tender for the new system, and a contract was signed with the technology company, EOH. During an audit of SITA, the Auditor General (AG) had requested certain documents on the contract, but these were not supplied by SITA. This meant that the AG had no option but to reflect the R409-million as possible irregular expenditure until such time as SITA provided the documents. Forensic auditors were now investigating the whole matter.

Master file missing

Mr Luvuyo Keyise, Executive Caretaker, SITA, told the Committee the AG had made a finding on non-compliance with the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) and supply chain prescriptions, because the master file relating to the bid could not be located. The DHA and SITA management had reconstructed the master file, but some of the AG’s findings remained unresolved.

One of the reasons that the files could not be found was that at the time of the audit, senior officials involved in the process were no longer working for SITA. Two had left SITA in 2017 and 2018, while the project manager, who had coordinated the bidders’ vetting process, Mr Lourens Swanepoel, had died in July 2019. According to records, Mr Swanepoel was the last person to access some of the files. Another reason was that there was no proper tracking process for some documents that were moved between SITA and the State Security Agency (SSA) for vetting.

In May 2020, SITA had appointed the audit firm of SAB&T to investigate the entire audit process. SITA was supporting the investigation. All information requested by the investigators had now been provided. The investigators were now interviewing the people involved. Once this process was complete, criminal charges would be considered and steps would be taken to recover money that had been misspent.

Mr Keyise said action was being taken to improve document management and procurement and supply chain procedures.

Discussion

The Chairperson commented that the Committee was not hearing about these matters for the first time.

Mr D Moela (ANC) said he wished to echo the President's call for there to be a turning point in fighting corruption. Resolution of the ABIS tender issue was long overdue. It was a problem that no one had been charged or held accountable. He suggested that the missing files were the result of officials hiding “something very serious.”

Mr A Roos (DA) agreed. He said the Committee had requested an investigation 14 months earlier. Why had it taken so long to appoint forensic auditors? He asked for details on the reported suspension of 183 people at SITA. He commented that EOH was trying to exit from the ABIS contract, and hand it to a sub-contractor.

Mr J McGluwa (DA) described the failure to resolve the ABIS matter as an embarrassment to the country and to the Portfolio Committee. The absence of Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams ‘raised eyebrows.” She should be summoned to appear before the Committee to explain what was happening at SITA.

Ms L Tito (EFF) asked whether the DHA would ask for condonation of the irregular expenditure. She asked how the master file could have been reconstructed when other files were missing.

Ms T Khanyile (DA) asked what action would be taken against those responsible, and when this would happen.

Ms M Molekwa (ANC) asked what the root cause of the irregular expenditure was. Could the investigators conclude their investigation if there was still information missing?

Mr M Lekota (Cope) asked how Mr Swanepoel had died, and why the missing file had been linked to him. He asked whether the problems at SITA had been discussed with other Ministers in the relevant Cabinet cluster. He also questioned the absence of the Minister responsible for SITA.

Ms M Modise (ANC) asked whether Mr Swanepoel had been in possession of files at the time of his death. The Committee would have little patience for further delays in the investigation of the tender. Stolen money had to be recovered. It was no coincidence that files had disappeared and people should be brought to book.

Ms L van der Merwe (IFP) said it was “surprising and disturbing” that Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams had been unable to join the meeting. She thanked Minister Motsoaledi for always being willing to appear before the Committee. She described the suggestion that Mr Swanepoel had died with files in his possession as “bizarre.”

Mr C Chabane (ANC) said corruption was a key focus of the current parliament. He asked about possible collusion in EOH’s appointment of a subcontractor. What penalties would be imposed for non-delivery by EOH? He called for immediate action against wrongdoers.

The Chairperson commented that all the Committee members appeared to be “singing one tune” on the need to conclude the ABIS tender matter. He ruled that both the Home Affairs and Communications Ministers should return in the first week of October to brief the Committee on actions taken.

Mr Njabulo Nzuza, Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, said that while the ABIS contract was administered by SITA, the DHA was paying for it and the irregular expenditure was reflected in the DHA accounts. That was why the DHA had appointed forensic auditors to investigate the tender. He said there were concerns about EOH’s inability to deliver on the contract. The DHA was “salvaging” the process, and would return to the Committee when a rescue plan had been finalised. They would leave no stone unturned in dealing with people who were corrupt.

Mr Fhumulani Rabonda, Deputy Business Executive, Auditor-General of South Africa (AGSA), said their audit had found that EOH might have been unfairly favoured in the awarding of the contract. The Department’s response had been that the missing documents would clarify the matter. Right now, the matter was still classified as possible irregular expenditure under investigation. It had to be resolved, as it could not continue to be reflected as such in the Department's financial statements.

Mr Keyise said he understood the feelings of the Committee members. He could not understand why it had taken so long to discover that a computer disc record of the master file was empty. Once the discovery had been made, it had taken only a week to reconstruct the master file from the laptops of all those involved.

Commenting that “a fish rots from the head,” Mr Keyise said action would be taken against senior officers involved in the matter. Criminal charges would be lodged against those involved in irregularities. However, he was waiting for the forensic investigation to be finalised. A finding had to be made on what value for money the contract was delivering. EOH would not be allowed to “walk away” from the contract and hand it to a sub-contractor. It had already done this at another government department. Mr Keyise confirmed that 183 people had been suspended as part of a “clean-up process” at SITA. Details had been provided to Parliament's Standing Committee on Public Accounts.

Minister Motsoaledi said he shared the anger of Committee Members, because he was now having to “answer for the deeds of other people.” He had learnt about the matter in June the previous year. Appointing forensic auditors had taken time because of the need to invite tenders from auditing firms. The forensic auditors were ready to start work in March of the current year, but the work had been delayed by the Covid 19 outbreak.

The Minister promised that action would be taken against wrongdoers. “You don’t hire forensic auditors if you don’t believe a crime has been committed,” he said. However people should not be allowed to escape punishment because action against them had been taken too hastily or in anger. The forensic auditors now needed to interview people who had been flagged in terms of the audi alteram partem rule. Judges would not look kindly upon lapses in legal processes.

The issue of possible collusion in the awarding of the contract was being investigated. A subcontractor brought in by ABIS had initially been a competitor for the contract.

Penalties for non-delivery were built into all government contracts.

He said it was a pity that Mr Swanepoel could not answer for himself. The investigators would have to follow the paper trail and conclude whether he was involved or not.

The ABIS matter had not been placed before any ministerial cluster.

The Chairperson concluded the hearing on the ABIS tender. He said it was unacceptable to apportion responsibility solely to Mr Swanepoel, when other people must have been involved in the tender process. He said the funding for the first phase of the contract had been exhausted, and EOH now wanted to give it to a subcontractor which wanted to increase the scope of the contract by R100 million.

Responses to Members’ questions

Mr Jackson McKay, Acting Director- General, Department of Home Affairs, presented a list of written responses to issues raised by a study group of the Committee:

Appointment of Deputy Director General (DDG)

On progress with the appointment of a Deputy Director General for Information Services, he said the post was most recently advertised on 30 August 2019, with a closing date of 13 September 2019. Selection was scheduled to unfold during March 2020, but had been overtaken by the Covid-19 lockdown. Shortlisting was subsequently undertaken on 2 July, with interviews on 10 July. No suitable candidates had been found. Direction on the re-advertisement of the post was presently being awaited from the Minister.

Mobile units

The department had a total of 100 mobile units. Of these, four were at the head office and were used for special projects or to strengthen capacity in the provinces where needed. The other 96 were deployed to the provinces. The mobile units could be used for taking Smart ID card and passport applications, and births and deaths registration. However, there were challenges with IT connectivity in deep rural areas and mechanical breakdowns.

Lindela Repatriation Centre

Nine security guards had been suspended and charged with aiding and abetting the escape of 37 deportees. However, the charges had been withdrawn, and the security guards were subsequently dismissed. The criminal investigation had proceeded against one former security guard who was allegedly seen talking to the deportees. He allegedly informed them that there were fewer security guards, and therefore they could leave the facility. A forensic investigation as to his identity had been initiated in May 2020, but he was not pointed out at an identity parade in August.

Cape Town refugees

The cases of refugee protestors who were based at Green Market Square in Cape Town were still being processed by the Refugee Appeals Board. An appeals process had been delayed by the Covid lockdown and the closure of a refugee reception centre.

Prior to the outbreak of the Coronavirus, it had been agreed between the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape Premier’s Office that a reintegration process would start immediately after verification of refugees was concluded. Resources to reintegrate had been offered by the City of Cape Town, but none of the refugee protesters had taken up the offer.

The risk of an uncontrolled spread of the Coronavirus had resulted in the establishment of temporary shelters by the City of Cape Town, in collaboration with the Department of Public Works at Bellville and Wingfield.

In various meetings between state organs and stakeholders, it had been agreed that the reintegration of refugee protesters back into the communities in which they were staying before, was the only way forward. Failure to do so would leave the Minister of Home Affairs with no option but to consult with the relevant embassies in order to repatriate the asylum seekers and refugees to their countries of origin.

Border Management Authority (BMA)

A 15-year road map was in place to guide the roll-out of the BMA over the short, medium and long term. The BMA Act needed to be brought into operation to enable the appointment of a Commissioner for the BMA. A draft BMA Commencement Proclamation had been signed by the Minister of Home Affairs for submission to the Presidency. The earmarked date for the Act to come into effect was 15 September 2020.

Constitutional judgment

Following the Constitutional Court ruling that the electoral system should allow for independent candidates, the Minister had constituted a Multi-disciplinary Electoral Reform Team (MDERT) to present a proposed electoral system in line with the judgment. The MDERT would also present timeframes for legislative reform. The preliminary views of the MDERT were that matters involving electoral systems were complex and would require extensive consultations.

Employment percentages

At 31 July 2020, 16% of DHA employees were people aged 35 and younger. The percentage for people with a disability was 1.8%. The percentage of women at senior management level was 46%.

Properties

The Department currently occupied 212 state-owned properties, and 230 privately-owned properties.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

Mr Gordon Hollamby, Chief Financial Officer, DHA, responded to questions about the Department's purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE). Up to 14 August, orders worth R20 million had been placed. Initially, decentralised offices had made urgent purchases from petty cash. Thereafter, they had followed processes determined by the National Treasury. Cleaning services had been hired because DHA cleaning staff had been ill with Covid-19. In Gauteng, cleaning services had been donated by religious and other organisations.

Discussion

Mr Roos asked what the next steps would be in appointing a DDG for Information Services, given that the Department was struggling with its information technology (IT) network. He asked whether mobile units were being deployed at schools to issue identity documents to learners. He noted that the DHA office in Centurion had been closed for three days while it waited for deep cleaning to be performed. He asked what could be done to assist South Africans stranded overseas with expired passports.

Mr Moela asked why the process to appoint the DDG had failed. He said the percentage of young people at the DHA was far too low. He asked what the Department planned to do about its renting of privately-owned properties.

Ms Khanyile and Ms Van der Merwe thanked the Minister for setting procedures in place for the Department to deal with queries submitted by MPs on behalf of constituents.

Because of time constraints, the Chairperson asked officials to be brief in their responses and to respond more fully in writing to members’ questions.

Department’s response

Mr McKay said the department was committed to employing more young and disabled people.

Minister Motsoaledi said people stranded overseas with expired passports could obtain emergency travel documents which they would surrender on arriving at the airport in South Africa. It was not possible to extend expired passports with a stamp, as this would not be accepted by the civil aviation authorities.

On the failure to appoint a DDG, he said there was a need to revise government job advertisements as these were not “friendly” to the private sector, where IT specialists were to be found. Most of the applications for the post had been from people in other government departments. He agreed that the DHA should own its premises, because they had to be built for its purposes. This would be taken into account in the government’s infrastructure planning.

The meeting was adjourned.

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