Meet the government WordPress site that cost R140m to build [Update]

Free State Website

If you were overcharged the last time you needed a website built, check this out: The Free State provincial government in South Africa reportedly forked out R140-million (US$15 366 680) for its online presence.

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According to The Sowetan newspaper Free State director general Elzabe Rockman signed a three-year contract to redesign the website in 2011. She apparently disputed this figure, saying it had actually cost a bargain-basement R40-million.

The agreement was signed with Tumi Ntsele, a prominent businessman in the country who has business with several other provincial departments. Ntsele’s tender for the project was also accepted despite the fact that two other parties had tendered much lower, more realistic numbers for the project.

You don’t have to know much about web development to know that the amount that government paid for the site is outrageous. A little knowledge might help for the next revelation though. The site isn’t even a custom build, it’s WordPress-based.

Don’t get us wrong, we love WordPress and think it’s a great content management system (CMS). There’s a reason it is used by around 15% of Alexa Internet’s top one-million websites. Given the right tools, you can also do amazing things with it. The likes of the BBC, CNN and Usain Bolt all use it.

The trouble is, this is WordPress at its most plain. For a multi-million rand project you’d expect the best user experience of your life, not mediocrity. The WordPress theme used meanwhile apparently cost just US$40.

It also can’t be the domain name that cost so much: is hardly going to be on a list of most in-demand domains on the web. If you were domain hunting though, the amount budgeted for the Free State site could just about net you the second most expensive domain in history:

The Sowetan quotes Etionee Bruwer, owner of web development company Jam Factory, who says that the highly secure websites used by top financial institutions usually come in at a much cheaper R12-million.

Despite this, Ntsele insists that the price was fair. “It’s even more cost-effective if you look at it. Compared to ventures like Gauteng Online, which is worth billions, it’s cheaper. The site includes the main website, 11 departments and all the municipalities,” he said.

Interestingly, the company which apparently built the site, Cherry Online Design doesn’t seem appear to have its own web presence. The link provided at the bottom of the government page takes you to another page from web hosting service Afrihost which says that the domain has been bought on behalf of a client.

The company’s Facebook page meanwhile only has nine likes and only a handful of posts, hardly suggestive of a company that regularly handles multi-million rand accounts.

The only other online info we could find on the company was through online directory Who’s Who. A search there turned up one employee. While that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sham agency (searches for other agencies on the directory revealed similarly scant results), the lack of online presence in general doesn’t exactly scream professional, high-budget site builder.

Even if it were a shit-hot agency though, the bottom line is whether the government paid R40-million or R140-million, it paid way too much.

Update: Tech blog Gadget managed to get hold of the actual tender document. A breakdown of the prices puts the total cost at R97-million, making it the most costly website in South African history.

In achieving that dubious honour, it overtook a South African Airways site aimed at foreign visitors, which cost R90-million in a venture that was eventually aborted in 2001.

It should be pointed out however, that this is just the initial tender document and that costs could well have been escalated since then.

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