Details of an alleged criminal syndicate swindling public schools and suppliers and making off with goods – including computers – worth thousands of rands have emerged. 

In a circular, which the Mail & Guardian has seen, new director general of the basic education department Matanzima Mweli warns schools of what he terms a “serious scam” officials have uncovered.  

“The public needs to be informed of this scam, which targets mainly public schools in rural areas and townships,” Mweli said in the document.

“This is a very alarming situation and all persons involved in South African schools are cautioned to be extremely vigilant to avoid becoming the victims of these fraudulent activities.”

The modus operandi of the syndicate, according to Mweli, entailed unknown people impersonating a department official and ordering goods from suppliers for a targeted school.
They often pretended to be the department’s deputy director for supply chain management, William Magopa, said the circular. 

Through phone calls and false paperwork, the fraudsters arrange for delivery to a school. But just hours after suppliers have delivered, they arrive to collect the goods from the schools using cunning reasons. 

Mweli explained the modus operandi in detail: “A member of the syndicate, pretending to represent the department, calls a supplier to place an order for goods and arranges for the goods to be delivered to a specific school.

“Following the phone call, the syndicate sends the supplier false paperwork that looks as if it comes from the department. The supplier, happy to receive an order, accepts the order and delivers the goods to the school without first checking with the department that the transaction is legitimate.

“The school accepts the delivery, thinking that the department has sent them an unexpected gift of equipment. A few hours after the delivery, syndicate members arrive at the school, again with false papers, and inform the school that they are there to collect the delivered goods. 

“Sometimes they pretend to represent the supplier, while at other times they pretend to represent the department. They tell schools a variety of lies to explain why they are taking the goods away: sometimes they say that the goods were delivered there only temporarily until they could be distributed to various other schools. 

“Sometimes they say the goods were delivered in error and that they are taking the goods to the school to which they should have been delivered. 

“If the goods are computers, they tell the school that they are taking the computers away temporarily to install software or to carry out some other configuration work to prepare the computers for the school’s use. The school never sees the goods again.”

The department was facing a barrage of complaints from unpaid suppliers as a result. 

Mweli revealed that the department was also now facing legal action from “several of the suppliers who have been the victims of this scam”. Legal action has been instituted against the national department, provincial education departments and certain schools.

“For instance, at present, there are two pending cases against the [national department] – one, in the amount of R189 550.00 and the other one, in the amount of R752 719.10,” said Mweli. 

“The suppliers who have been defrauded are severely affected by the activities of this syndicate, with small businesses suffering particularly very badly. In some instances, businesses have gone under as a result of the scam.”

Mweli’s circular urged provincial heads of department and district offices to “warn all schools … that should they ever receive a delivery that appears to have been arranged by the [national] department, they should not accept such delivery without first verifying it with the department’s supply chain management unit”. 

“All suppliers should also be warned that before releasing any goods or services that have been ordered by persons claiming to represent the department, they should first contact the department to confirm the legitimacy of the order.”