The Cuban Connection

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Now in its 10th year, the bilateral agreement on defence co-operation between Cuba and South Africa has increasingly come under the spotlight following the debacle around the acquisition of an unregistered COVID-19 prophylactic drug last year.

That acquisition was apparently entered into as part of Operation Thusano, the generic Setswana name seemingly given to all efforts, initiatives and undertakings between the militaries of the Caribbean island country and South Africa.

Today (Wednesday, 16 March) Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) was given an insight into the involvement of the Office of the Auditor-General of SA (AGSA), Tsakani Maluleke, in Thusano. Committee members heard acquisition of Cuban Heberon cost Minister Thandi Modise’s Department of Defence (DoD) R33 469 974. This was found by the AGSA as well as the SA Health Products Regulatory Agency (SAHPRA) to wasteful and fruitless expenditure.

The AGSA presentation to the PCDMV lists eight instances of Operation Thusano payments out of a total of R1.37 billion.

Apart from the Heberon acquisition, other major contributors to this total include aircraft chartering (R105 million), “permanent force allowances” (R55.1 million) , subsistence and transport as well as accommodation (R74.6 million), “air transport” for “foreign visit” (R26.7 million) and “passenger motor vehicles” (R8.6 million). The figures are for payments made since the 2016 financial year with Maluleke’s report to the committee stating clearly Thusano payments are since inception of the project to December last year.

The AGSA report has it “a value for money audit” on Operation Thusano was planned for 2019/2020 due to “significant expenditure incurred”. This was put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and government declared a national state of disaster. As the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) was an integral component of actions to prevent coronavirus spreading the “value add audit” was postponed to 2020/21.

Reviewing what it calls the “main contracts” – TI-17-001-SUDAFRICA and TI-17-002-SUDAFRICA – and various supplementary agreements, the Auditor General confirms the DoD did not follow any procurement processes nor did they obtain any deviations prior to entering into various supplementary agreements with Cuba’s Technoimport. Maluleke’s office further confirms the acquisition of goods and services by way of the Cuba/South Africa defence bilateral and supplementary agreements was “not in line” with the Constitution and Treasury Regulations including those applicable to supply chain management (SCM).

“Expenditure incurred under Operation Thusano was deemed to be irregular and the department (of defence) should disclose it as such in annual financial statements,” the AGSA report states.

AGSA recommends management (of the DoD) should ensure “deviations from normal procurement processes are justified, adequately documented and approved by the accounting officer (Secretary for Defence, Gladys Kudjoe) and/or National Treasury”. It is also recommended that Kudjoe “take effective and appropriate steps against officials who permitted irregular expenditure”.