A number of the country’s prominent civil society organisations have called on high-ranking government officials linked to personal protective equipment procurement irregularities to step aside while they are being investigated. In a joint statement, the organisations – which include the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Corruption Watch, Section 27 and the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) – slammed what they called ruthless ‘covidpreneurs’, the 91 companies who had received purchase orders from the Health Department and were under investigation. In contrast to the predatory nature of some of the new pop-up contractors; there are the angels who are pitching in to try to get much needed equipment to hospitals. One of them is the SA Medical and Education Foundation (SAME), who have been active in supplying some of the country’s biggest hospitals with medical supplies. Chief Executive Officer Trevor Pols told BizNews they have managed to raise R20-million in just three months. – Linda van Tilburg
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the ugly underbelly of South Africa and has proven that cronyism is flourishing. Several reports have surfaced of the well-connected in government and in the ANC being involved in lucrative contracts for procurement of personal protective equipment. But it has also brought out the giving side of many South Africans, from sportsmen like Springbok captain Siya Kolisi and his wife Rachel, who are involved in delivering food parcels in deprived areas. One of the charities that has switched its focus on helping major hospitals to source equipment is the SA Medical and Education Foundation (SAME). The Chief Executive Officer, Trevor Pols told BizNews how they ramped up their operations to help hospitals to increase their capacity to treat Covid-19 patients. Pols gave insight into South Africa’s mushrooming market in fraudulent PPEs and said he was worried that there was not enough oversight in money donated to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
The SAME foundation has been operating in both the medical and education fields for the past 17 years. So, we are doing pretty much what we usually do on a day-to-day basis. The only difference is, we’ve had to adjust to looking for PPE and supplying PPE, which we haven’t done before. There’s a lot of technical equipment, lifesaving equipment that is specialised or specific for Covid-19 treatments that we are focusing on now. And we’ve obviously had to ramp up our operations due to the pandemic and the size of it.
We managed to put over R20-million so far into the health system and if you think that’s all from donor funds, that’s pretty incredible. Especially, with the fact that government set up its own fund, the Solidarity Fund and with all the publicity that they gave it, within a few days, most companies’ donation budgets were depleted because they had given most of their funds to Solidarity.
They also got extra tax incentives for donating to that fund. Despite so much money going to the Solidarity Fund, we’ve still managed to raise over R20 million to date in the past three months and have donated that equipment to facilities. I think that’s also a key aspect of what we do really well, is we don’t hold on to donor funds. We make sure that if those funds are received today, within the week, those funds have been spent and the equipment is delivered to the facility. So, the people that have the need, get what they need when they need it.
Tell us about some of the projects you’ve done lately.
Since we’ve started, we’ve managed to assist over 13 health facilities around the country. Some of the bigger ones are Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg, the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, Tygerberg Hospital and the Groote Schuur Hospital in the Western Cape, as well as Covid-19 specific hospitals that have been established. One, for example, is the CTICC in the Convention Centre in Cape Town. They’ve converted most of that into the Hospital of Hope, which only treats Covid-19. I think it is an 800-bed hospital treating Covid-19 patients. We’ve managed to supply them with a lot of equipment that was needed. So, it is hospitals – major hospitals – dealing with high volumes of patients around the country that are in desperate need of certain items of equipment that we are assisting.
What have you done in the field of education?
All of our schools have closed down, our government schools have been closed down again for another month and schools aren’t operating at the moment, which is a good time for our teams to get in there to do the renovations and transformations that we do because we supply schools – government schools or public schools – around the country in disadvantaged areas with new science labs and computer labs, maths class rooms etc. We focus a lot on the STEM. We haven’t been very active in the education sector when it comes to Covid-19 due to the fact that the schools have been closed for the majority of the lockdown.
Tell us about the SAME foundation and how you got involved?
The SAME Foundation was established back in 2003 in the Western Cape to assist the health system, which was severely overburdened and under-resourced at the time and to this day, it still is. Since then, we’ve managed to go nationally, supporting health systems around the country as well as branched into education. I am the son of the founder. My mom, Dianne Pols is the founder of the organisation, and I joined them two years after they initially started it in 2003.
And where does the interest come from?
From the family side, because it has become quite a family organisation. We grew up extremely poor and had to rely on all these government facilities, government schools, and government hospitals for health care. We know what it feels like to be a patient in one of these hospitals waiting an entire day to be seen and then to be told to come back the next day, or doctors not being able to do what they need to do because they don’t have the correct equipment. Certain surgeries that have to be performed can’t be performed correctly because they don’t have the correct equipment.
We had first-hand experience of what it was like growing up. So, I think that’s where our passion for this comes from, it is wanting to make a difference not just for the health community, but for every person out there that has to use these facilities for health care and education, making sure that they get quality education and quality health care at the end of the day.
Trevor what are the stories out there? How stretched are these facilities?
Our facilities are completely overburdened at the moment, I unfortunately have to visit a lot of these facilities when the equipment donations get done. So, it’s putting yourself at risk too. To see all these patients lying on beds almost lifeless, it’s really sad. The doctors and nurses are all working thirty-six-hour shifts because they’re understaffed at the moment.
They were understaffed before the virus and with a lot of the doctors and nurses contracting the virus and not being able to come to work – having to go into quarantine – they are even more understaffed than before. They really are fighting an uphill battle at the moment. I know that the department has set up new Covid-19 facilities that aren’t hospitals. Like, I said, the Cape Town International Convention Centre, which they’ve transformed it into a Covid hospital for the overflow patients, because Groote Schuur, Tygerberg and Khayelitsha Hospital are all completely full. The overflow patients end up going to these new facilities.
Corruption has been exposed in the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE). There is even somebody in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office who has been put on leave. Have you come across anything like that or are you wary of that?
Yes. So, obviously we have heard of that story going around and from personal experience, we’ve seen plenty fly-by-night companies pop up in the past four months sending quotes for PPE. The prices that these guys are sending are absolutely ridiculous. You’re looking at a 1000% increase on the standard price of a three-ply mask or a KN-95 mask.
The certificates that they are sending are fraudulent, too. We’ve got to be very aware of where we are sourcing our products from and that the certification and test reports supplied are valid to ensure that we don’t get burnt. So, touch wood – it hasn’t happened to us, it hasn’t yet. But it’s crazy. It’s hundreds of millions of rand that have passed through the hands of corrupt individuals, setting up fraudulent companies, buying out all the PPE that’s available in South Africa and then re-selling it at a much higher rate.
Fraudulent certification of products. Is that what have you experienced?
I’ve experienced personally when this thing first started, every single person on social media was apparently a PPE salesperson. They all had connections and they’re all selling stuff. Three-ply masks were selling at R17 each which is supposed to sell for like R2.50 each. Where they are getting their stock from, I have no idea. Most of it was Chinese imports and the certification is all fraudulent. But they’re selling you a product, but the product isn’t to the specifications that it is required because the certificate that they are giving you is fake.
How widespread do you think that is?
I’d say it’s pretty widespread, but it takes a bit of digging to find out. Where have they popped up from? All the companies are registered this year and everybody’s selling the same stuff. They’re all buying from each other and reselling. PPE is going in circles and never getting to an end-user that actually needs it. I’d love to see how many people land up sitting with PPE in their garages at the end of this, not being able to get rid of it because they bought it at prices that were ridiculous, hoping to make a profit from this.
Where do you get funding from, where does your money come from?
All our funds are donor funds from our donor partners. We have quite a big network of donors who give us annually and with this crisis, a lot of new donors have stepped up and said, “Hey guys, we love what you’re doing we’d like to be involved, too.” All of our funds are donor funds. With education we do however with our classrooms, get a grant from the Education Department to assist. But with Covid-19, all our funds have been through donations from generous individuals and companies.
How much of the money actually goes to the projects?
We have two types of donors that give the foundation funding, those that give project specific funding. If you give us a donation for Covid-19, 100% percent of your donation is spent on that project. If you give money towards the foundation’s running costs, then that covers our costs. So, we do get two different types of donors coming through, those that give us grants to the foundation for general use and those that give projects specific donations.
Trevor, are you worried about what happens to the funding that goes to the Solidarity Fund, where the donations are going?
I do, with the amount of corruption we’re seeing in the country at the moment within the government ranks with government spending, we’ve got to be concerned about how donor funds are being managed, how they are being spent. With the SAME Foundation, we have a good track record of transparency and reporting to our donors how their funds get spent, when they get spent and show evidence of expenditure.
We keep a proper paper trail of how our donation funds are managed and how the procurement process is done. I’m not seeing enough of that within government ranks and other funds that are out there at the moment. That is concerning. We know that there are billions of rand available to the NPO (non-profit organisation) market for Covid-19 assistance, but we’re not seeing enough done. You have to start asking questions and I am wondering what is happening there. (Pols told BizNews that the non-profit organisations in South Africa received R9-billion in donations annually and it was expected to be higher this year because of Covid-19).
What’s also interesting in a crisis like this is that it brings out the worst of people and the best of people. Is that what you see?
100%. I think it’s pretty much black and white, as you’ve just mentioned. You get those that are trying to take advantage and make a quick buck off other people going through this experience, this Covid-19 pandemic and it’s very unfortunate that they are doing this. There are a lot of millionaires that are being made out of the present situation in South Africa with the government putting a ban on cigarettes. We’ve seen the illegal cigarette trade boom. There’s lots of millionaires that have been made in the past three months through illegal selling of cigarettes. Alcohol bans come into place and you starting to see the same thing jump up, with people selling alcohol illegally. The prices that they are inflated to is just completely ridiculous. Similar to the PPE that we spoke about, where people are selling PPE at rates that are just not affordable.
Then you get those that have stepped up to the plate and said: ‘Hey we want to make a difference’. Companies that aren’t able to operate as they usually would, that have transformed their workshops to provide PPE equipment, hand-sanitising machines and ventilators – which is absolutely fantastic because we know worldwide there has been a ventilator shortage. Our waiting time in South Africa was 8 to 12 weeks before we could receive ventilators from overseas. These companies are producing new equipment like ventilators for the South African market. It is absolutely fantastic that they’ve been so innovative. People at home are making masks and handing them out to the homeless. So, you do see two types of people coming out of a crisis like this. Those that that have a good heart that want to make a positive difference and those that want to try and capitalise on it.