Auditor-General critical of Project Thusano

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The ongoing relationship between the South African defence fraternity, in the form of the Department of Defence (DoD) and the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), and Cuba is not financially savvy, with medical, mechanical engineering and vehicle repair/refurbishment training pointed out as not up to scratch.

In one of a number of negative findings against Minister Thandi Modise’s department, Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke’s budgetary review and recommendations report (BRRR) has it paying for 79 students to study “military medical/medicine courses” on the Caribbean island state was 136% more expensive than them studying in South Africa.

This, the BRRR states, could have resulted in an estimated saving of R122 393 291 over the study period, given as 2014 to 28 (in all probability a typographic error which should read 2018).

It continues, pointing out medical students who completed “vocational training” in Cuba are additionally enrolled at the University of Pretoria for an 18 months integration course. This is an additional cost to the DoD of R8 213 289.21, which translates to R391 109.01 for each of 21 students enrolled at the tertiary education institution.

The Auditor-General report has similar issues with other parts of the Cuba/SA bilateral agreement – Project Thusano – noting Modise’s DoD “continues to incur irregular expenditure relating to Project Thusano”. This is supported by the latest DoD annual report which has it R308 million in irregular expenditure was incurred during the 2022/23 financial year. SA procurement laws were not followed when concluding the bilateral contract with Cuba on Project Thusano, according to the Auditor-General BRRR.

The Department of Defence “did not realise the return on investment” in Cuban training for mechanical engineers. This, the A-G calculated at over R1 million each for 15 of 28 mechanical engineering students who completed their studies during 2021 and 2022. By June this year they had not been deployed in professional positions “because military dispensation for engineers and related professions did not cater for sufficient officer’s posts”.

Also on the hiccup list is official South African accreditation for 70 of 134 (52%) “tank and transport technique students” who completed vocational training in Cuba. They, at the time of the BRRR’s compilation, did not have SA Qualifications Authority (SAQA) accreditation because of “delayed application and/or no budget allocated to fund SAQA accreditation”.

The final key insight by the A-G is a telling one in terms of what was one of the first Cuba/SA bilateral agreed co-operation and work areas – vehicle maintenance and refurbishment.

“Samils preserved through Project Thusano were not stored in acceptable state for deployment – most were resting on trestles with no wheels,” is the single sentence of condemnation with one of two causes put down to lack of a needs assessment and cost benefit analysis.  This would inform procurement of training for professional services and vehicle repair and maintenance, the BRRR reads.

Overall, the Auditor-General found with Thusano, “resources of the department are not used in an economical, efficient and effective way to enable best return on investment for the department and government.”

On actions and recommendations, the A-G suggests a review of the bilateral arrangement to ensure it benefits the DoD.

The other Project Thusano action/recommendation is for the DoD to “evaluate the cost and duration of professional services against those provided in South Africa to achieve the objectives of the bilateral agreement in the most economic and efficient manner”.