File picture: DAILY DISPATCH
File picture: DAILY DISPATCH

The DA has laid a criminal charge against the Eastern Cape government for alleged tender irregularities relating to a R160m contract to procure 55,000 tablets and e-learning material for the province’s grade 12 pupils.

The provincial education department introduced the e-learning initiative to mitigate the disruption caused by Covid-19 on the school calendar by helping pupils catch up on their schoolwork through digital platforms.

Education MEC Fundile Gade has said the partnership with the MTN/Sizwe joint venture will, among other things, benefit pupils through virtual classes and enable them to access other education-related portals during the coronavirus pandemic through zero-rated SIM cards.

He said the introduction of e-learning will contribute to the gains the province has made in the past three years. In 2019, the Eastern Cape registered the highest improvement of matric results in the country, obtaining a 76.5% pass rate compared with 70.6% in 2018.

However, the procurement of the tablets and e-learning material now hangs in the balance as the DA has written to the provincial treasury requesting that “the contract be placed on hold”.

DA shadow education MEC Yusuf Cassim, who wrote the letter on Friday, told Business Day on Tuesday he has not yet received a response from finance MEC Mlungisi Mvoko.

However, Mvoko told Business Day on Tuesday: “I have not [yet] received that letter. As treasury, we are still assessing the awarding of the contract.”

Cassim said Gade initially refused to “answer questions around the controversial R160m contract” during an education portfolio committee meeting last Wednesday.

“He said he does not want to discuss procurement processes or contracts that have been awarded, or any issues that have appeared on social media, challenging those who had issues with the contract to go to court,” said Cassim.

“At the heart of the matter is the awarding of a contract without the matter going out to tender.”

Cassim said he will write to premier Oscar Mabuyane to ask that he “urgently provide constitutional training to Gade so that we can urgently rectify his constitutional delinquent tendencies for the sake of education in the Eastern Cape”.

Gade’s spokesperson Vuyiseka Mboxela said on Tuesday: “It is unfortunate that the DA has opted to go the route of political grandstanding, in the process undermining the department's endeavour to draw in poor indigent learners so that they can also access virtual classes and e-learning education portals.”

Mboxela said the department has been “consistent and steadfast” in openly profiling how this “breakthrough partnership” will assist grade 12 pupils to access lessons through live interactive virtual classes.

“That information has been in the public domain for over three weeks now,” said Mboxela, adding that the department will no longer engage about the issue in public again until the courts have “pronounced on the matter”.

Cassim said they will hold a virtual, special meeting with departmental heads on Thursday to “interrogate this contract further”.

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za