Right to reply – Fin24 article published on the Board of SANRAL

Right to reply – Fin24 article published on the Board of SANRAL

Carol Paton and the news outlet (Fin24) she writes for have the right to express an opinion or even to take sides on any matter in the public domain. However, what they don’t have the right to is inserting their own (or someone else’s) opinion in a news article and then passing it on as news. And that is what, in our opinion, they did in the article of the 17th June 2020 titled Inside Sanral’s board, which makes controversial rules and lacks engineering know-how.

It is now common knowledge that the SANRAL Board’s decision not to approve the award of five tenders has upset some within the construction industry. Equally, the decision, which is perfectly legal and prudent, has also upset some within SANRAL who have chosen to pay allegiance to private sector interests.

The dissatisfaction has given rise to a “coalition of the disgruntled” which has sought to recruit some journalists to its cause. We shall not contest individual journalists’ choice as to which interests they want to advance but when such support is masqueraded as news, we shall call it out.

We have extensively dealt with the reasons why the SANRAL Board did not approve the award of the said tenders. And, by the way, this is not the first nor the last instance a tender is not awarded at SANRAL. Week in and week out, SANRAL’s Management Bid Adjudication Committee (MBAC) declines, for whatever legitimate reason, the award of some tenders. And whenever it does so, it would be acting within its delegated powers and in the best interest of SANRAL. It is a role that is not confined to MBAC but extends to the Board too, especially in relation to tenders with a value exceeding R750 million (as it happened in the instance of the five tenders).

We have also gone on record as saying those who are dissatisfied with the decision not to award the five tenders or deem it illegal are free to challenge it in a court of law. In a constitutional democracy like ours, matters of this nature are best settled in court, and not in the court of public opinion or by recruiting journalists to sway public opinion.

Seemingly not keen to go the legal route, the “coalition of the disgruntled” has decided the one strategy it will use is to question the suitability and/or qualifications of the SANRAL Board. To state the obvious, the SANRAL Board did not appoint itself neither did it extend its term. The appointment and decision to extend the Board’s term were taken by two different Ministers (Minister Blade Nzimande and Minister Fikile Mbalula respectively) and ratified by Cabinet. The different skills, abilities and qualities that go into the building of a balanced board of directors would have been one of the political leadership’s considerations in appointing the SANRAL Board.

But Ms Paton seemingly would have done a better job. She makes an issue about the engineering skills within the SANRAL Board and here she became guilty of editorializing or expressing an opinion in her purported news article. Journalism 101 should have taught her that editorializing happens when a writer consciously or unconsciously expresses doubt, censure or praise in a news story. Her doubts about the suitability of the SANRAL Board are all over the story – and do not sound original. Just a few weeks ago one captain of the construction industry expressed the same view. We would hate to think Ms Paton is reciting the same view parrot-like.

As a seasoned business writer, she will know that progressive boards today optimally reflect the strategic priorities of the business, the diversity of its stakeholders and, in the case of a state-owned entity like ours, the socio-economic outlook of the Shareholder (i.e. government). The notion that engineers are the exclusive group of professionals who can shape the strategic direction of SANRAL is as silly as it is arrogant.

But even so, the SANRAL Board does have two directors, as admitted by Ms Paton herself, who are engineers. But to her they are not good enough because they have not worked in the private sector. It is here that she really nails her colours to the mast and shows her bias – that which is private sector is intrinsically good and that which is public sector is suspect. It will take Ms Paton a lot of reading and a major review of hundreds of academic studies for her to realise that there is no empirical evidence that the private sector or those who have been exposed to it are intrinsically more efficient than the public sector.

Also, it is intriguing that the qualifications of the Board have never arisen in the three years of its tenure. It is becoming an issue now simply because the Board has taken a decision that may not be in the interest of certain vested interests. And to the latter, we plead guilty. But of one thing we are certain: we took a decision in line with proper governance and which is in the best interest of SANRAL. In certain instances, such as where the threshold for black empowerment participation was lowered or excluded without Board approval, the decision not to approve the awards is in line with the organization’s commitment to transformation.

As for the under-reporting (a manifestation of media bias) of the qualifications of SANRAL’s Acting CEO, Ms Paton could not allow facts to get in the way of a “good” story. Probably keen to demonstrate to her readers how unsuitable Ms Lehlohonolo Pitse is to be acting as CEO (this despite the fact that non-engineers and less qualified candidates have previously acted as CEOs), she omitted some of the qualifications sent to her.

The article refers to Ms Pitse as a “certified auditor with a BCom degree”. For the record, in SANRAL’s response to questions by Ms Paton preceding the publishing of her article, Ms Pitse’s qualifications were indicated as follows: BCom Financial Accounting, BCom Honours (Internal Auditing), MPhil (Internal Auditing), all obtained from the University of Pretoria, and Certified Internal Auditor.

As for the insinuation that the rest of the Board is but a bunch of nobodies we shall not blow our own trumpets save to say these are people who have broken barriers both for themselves and many South Africans. If Ms Paton read their CVs she would understand why they sit on that Board and be ashamed of her article.

On the issue of underspending, apart from the impact of COVID-19 on the rollout of projects, the implementation of supply chain management reform to comply with Treasury regulations on procurement, and the delays caused by the longest standing impasse between SANRAL and National Treasury on the 30% subcontracting clause, which took 18 months to complete, the SANRAL Board does not determine when tenders are advertised and evaluated. Involvement in such operational matters would constitute overreach by the Board.

If Ms Paton had done her research on the underspending, she would have come across the above-mentioned reasons, which our Management gave a few months ago, as to why there has been an underspending on projects. Also noteworthy, is the explanation Management gave that the majority of projects are not delayed between adjudication and award, but rather between closing of advertisements and completing of the evaluations.

But because of her bias, Ms Paton might have been oblivious to these reasons, even to one as obvious as COVID-19, and instead chosen to blame the Board for the underspending. It is here that we wonder whether hers is not the worst form of media bias.

Looking at the definition of media bias, it is the tendency to lean towards or against someone or something in one’s reporting. The direction in which a journalist leans can be influenced by a variety of factors – such as racial identity, culture and the biases of one’s sources. We hold Ms Paton in the highest regard to think any of these would have influenced her article and perspective. Sometimes, bias is something a writer is aware of, and this is known as explicit bias. We would not accuse Ms Paton of such. However, implicit or unconscious bias is something one does not realise one has. In her case, we think it is more the latter.