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

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.

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: www.freestateonline.fs.gov.za 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: Insure.com.

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.

Author | Stuart Thomas

Stuart Thomas
Stuart is the editor-in-chief of Engage Me Online. After pursuing an MA in South African literature, he spent five years reporting on the global technology scene. Intrigued by the intersection of technology and work, he joined Engage Me as the editor-in-chief. He is a passionate runner, and recently ran... More


  1. Kavin

    March 4, 2013 at 2:22 pm


  2. Guest

    March 4, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    I feel it nessecary to point out that even 40million is not even close to a ‘reasonable amount’..

  3. Stuart Thomas

    March 4, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Hi Guest,

    Unfortunately Memeburn doesn’t have a pre-installed sarcasm font. I have updated the sentence to better reflect its intent.

  4. Pingback: Meet the government WordPress site that cost R140m - Memeburn

  5. Nur Ahmad Furlong

    March 4, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    This makes a person want to 1. Puke, then 2. Beat the living daylights out of the government employees responsible for wasting tax payer’s money on something as rediculous as this and then 3. beat the living daylights out of the company/individual who conned the tax payers out of this much money. As a WordPress Developer, having checked the theme used, they could have gotten a rebranded version of the theme for around $1k – $2k max. No wonder ordinary hard working South Africans are no better off after apartheid with the types of people running around in government at the moment.

  6. Cirrus Comms

    March 4, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    We charge about R8500 for the same kind of site. Bunch of crooks

  7. Paul vd Merwe

    March 4, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    It puts us as web designers / web builders / web developers in a bad light! The corruption that happened here is SO upsetting! To think (the lack off) and sign off on something this absurd makes me as a South African web developer sad! This company has now done the work, every body has been paid! Nothing can be done yet we pay for it!

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  9. Pingback: Free State Wordpress website worth $40, government paid R40 million | Open Knowledge

  10. Andrew Baddeley

    March 5, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    Holy shit, time to up my rates!

  11. Brett

    March 5, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    That’s how you get ex-government employees driving Murcielago’s and Rolls Royces. This is clearly a massive back hander and the kind of corruption that drives us to despair.

  12. Andrew Baddeley

    March 5, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    You didn’t factor into this project management and since dealing with government, you will want to make that portion 2 million. New total: R2 008 500. Stll a bargain.

  13. Andrew Baddeley

    March 5, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Re: update “… A breakdown of the prices puts the total cost at R97-million, making it the most costly website in South African history.” – don’t be sloppy, update your post title.

  14. Andrew Baddeley

    March 5, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    Is this a joke? 2 minutes on and content hasn’t even started to appear. I will bet you that in spite of the 97 million cost it was decided to host internationally in order to save costs! The irony! :)

  15. Stuart Thomas

    March 5, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Hi Andrew,

    Please see the last sentence of the article. As I’ve noted, the amount may well have escalated from the R97-million in the tender document.

  16. Pingback: Facebook metes out hate for company that built multi-million rand gov’t website | memeburn

  17. Pingback: Clever digital studio shows how you could actually justify spending R140m on a website | memeburn

  18. Stefano Kruger

    March 7, 2013 at 10:19 am

    The Free State site is a $40 theme!!! http://themeforest.net/item/london-live-3-in-1-news-magazine-and-blog/154462 WHAT A JOKE!!!

  19. Luke

    March 10, 2013 at 8:29 am

    Guys its clear that all of us commenting on this post knows about site building and development and being that we know the fraud that is going on here i think we should actually take this further and bring these people to accountability, there are so many areas in which government tells us that there aren’t any resources (education, roads, skills development, job creation) yet this same government can spend this amount on a R10 000.00 website of which we all know that no entity whether private sector or public services would commission such a service without due diligence and getting all the facts ETC, the persons responsible for the commission of this site on governments behalf needs to be brought to task and answer, the public protector needs to somehow get involved here. Whats happened to the tender fraud debacle whereby government has decided a special evaluation or assessment process to asses whether the work or services rendered are inline with the amounts to be invoiced to government, this website would have DEFINITELY not have made the cut … Lets enter into a dialogue to discuss how to expose this and prevent further THEFTS from our country by the people involved… This cant happen again whilst we the people must fit the bill for government expansions ETC (THE ESKOM EVER RISING TARRIFS, THE RIDICULOUS FUEL PRICES, STARVING CHILDREN) How did government operate before the web evolution????? They are using every way and means to siffle funds… DISGUSTING

  20. Ebrahim Ismail

    March 12, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Doesn’t even have a favicon :(

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