Three billion condoms and enough lubricant to fill 12 Olympic-sized swimming pools – that’s what the department of health has spent more than R3.5 billion on to combat a rise in HIV infections and teen pregnancies.
According to a 2014 survey by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), condom use has decreased and, combined with other risky sexual behaviour, has led to an increase of an estimated 6.4 million people living with HIV in South Africa. To combat this, the department embarked on one of its largest drives as part of its target to make safe sex more accessible by spending billions on scented male condoms, female condoms and lubricant.
A department circular dated June 26 2015, a copy of which City Press has obtained, states that, out of 51 bidders, 13 companies were awarded tenders to supply and deliver the condoms and lubricant between July 1 2015 and June 30 2018.
The contracts are for the supply of 3 billion scented male condoms, 54 million female condoms – and, bizarrely, 6 billion sachets of lubricant.
The contracts have been applauded by the likes of UNAids because they drive targets in the department’s national strategic plan for HIV, TB and sexually transmitted infections, which was developed in 2012 to last until next year.
Also, R1.57 billion of the contract was awarded to a white and foreign-owned company, Barrs Medical. One of its four directors lives in Israel, and another in California in the US.
This flies in the face of Treasury’s strategy for government departments to procure from local companies.
The documents also show that Barrs Medical received a tender score rating of between 9 and 9.9, although the company has no black South Africans in management.
THE ENORMOUS LUBE SLIP-UP
City Press and Mark Thomas from data-reporting organisation uSpiked, which has investigated pharmaceutical tenders, examined the figures and found that an apparent anomaly in the quantity of lubricant ordered meant that the price of the contract exploded from R19 million to R1.9 billion.
Despite a directive that all condom sachets ordered should already contain lubricant, the condom tender asked companies to bid for the supply and delivery of 60 million sachets of lubricant suitable for vaginal and anal use – one sachet for every 50 male condoms ordered.
But a careful look at the documents reveals that the department had actually contracted 6 billion sachets of lubricant – 20 sachets for every male condom and enough in total to fill 12 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Barrs Medical, which was awarded the bulk of the lubricant tender, is expected to supply 4.2 billion sachets for more than R1.3 billion.
The tender document states that Barrs Medical is required to supply 42 million packs with each pack containing 100 5ml sachets at 32c a sachet. It also states that Medi-Core Technologies will provide 18 million packs at 34c each. These figures translate to an order of 6 billion sachets of lubricant over three years.
Joseph Morrison from Barrs Medical was quick to dismiss the figure, saying he was not aware that the quantity was as large and that his manufacturer in China would never be able to provide for such an order.
However, after City Press pointed to the line item specifying the quantities in the contract circular, which he had sent, he said: “I’m confused. I didn’t know that is what the department expected of us. I don’t think I should comment any further, as I was under the impression we were supplying 42 million and not 4.2 billion.”
According to at least two of the bid winners, this is the biggest consignment of condoms the department has ever undertaken.
Of the R3.5 billion contract, the lion’s share – 45% of it – went to Barrs Medical.
It is owned by the same directors who own Sekunjalo Investments Corporation, the company that has won the condom tenders for at least the past seven years.
FEMALE CONDOMS IN DEMAND
City Press understands that even though the national health department is handling the tender specifications, each provincial department will have to place its own orders with the companies contracted.
Further investigations into the tender and the provincial departments has revealed that, as recently as last month, the Gauteng health department was desperate for a supply of female condoms and hinted at a problem with supply.
An urgent email sent by a Gauteng health department official to a service provider, which City Press has seen, stated that: “We need female condoms like yesterday, but without an order number, there is nothing we can do.”
Steve Mabona, spokesperson for Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, denied that the department had experienced any female-condom shortages.
“The last time we ordered female condoms was in June this year – we ordered 926 026 condoms in total,” he said.
“We experienced a shortage in the first quarter [April-June]; we don’t expect further shortages.”
But he added that the total of 3 billion male condoms and 54 million female condoms ordered by the national health department “were made available to technical vocational education and training institutions only”.
BETTER FEMALE CONDOMS
A contractor who asked not to be named said the department had provided people with a choice of female condoms.
“The department used to contract the unpopular plastic condoms that were not appealing to many women because of the feel and the noise they made.
“But this time, there were specifications for two types of female condoms, the nitrile and latex,” said the contractor.
However, female condoms are still the lowest quantity ordered, forming only 1.8% of the total condom order.
The CEO of the HSRC and a former director-general of health, Olive Shisana, said the smaller quantity of female condoms might have been based on cost considerations.
“Female condoms are more expensive than male condoms. It is encouraging to see, though, that there are leading companies focused on producing cheaper and more user-friendly condoms,” she said.
Shisana said studies showed that many men preferred the use of female condoms, which they found more comfortable.
“But there are also studies showing that women think the condom is ugly and makes a noise. We still need to educate people about the benefits,” she said.
NO COMMENT FROM HEALTH DEPARTMENT
The national department of health failed to comment after a month of emails, phone calls, reminders and SMSes.
City Press contacted department spokesperson Popo Maja three weeks ago and asked him to provide us with an email address to send our questions relating to the condom tender.
We sent a comprehensive list of questions, which he confirmed receiving.
The next week, we sent the same questions and additional ones to deputy director-general for regulation and compliance Anban Pillay. He asked that the questions be forwarded to director of HIV prevention Thato Chidarikire, as Pillay was out of the country.
Last Friday, Chidarikire said she had sent responses to Pillay and Maja, who both claimed they had not received them.
Maja’s final message was: “Give me an hour.”