Health Dept suspends contract linked to Mkhize's associates

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The Health Department has suspended the services of Digital Vibes, an obscure communications firm linked to two close associates of Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, which was paid R82m in secured emergency procurement orders for COVID-19 awareness campaigns, reports Daily Maverick.

The Maverick's investigative unit, Scorpio, recently revealed that Tahera Mather, Mkhize’s long-time personal spokesperson, and Naadhira Mitha, his former personal assistant, benefited from Digital Vibes’ Health Department contract by working for the company as paid consultants.

The firm was first roped in by the department in late 2019 to deliver communications services for the National Health Insurance (NHI) roll-out, but its services were extended in March 2020 to include COVID-19. Daily Maverick notes that unlike some provincial health departments, the national department has so far been spared major scandals relating to its emergency procurement.

But the Digital Vibes matter could change that. Confirming the department had suspended Digital Vibes’ contract, Health Department spokesperson Popo Maja said this was done because of an ongoing probe by a forensic investigator appointed by the department.

The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) is also investigating the contract. “Our instructions are that the contract was not terminated but suspended to facilitate and allow the SIU investigation,” Digital Vibes’ principal director, Radha Hariram, said through her attorney.

The government’s tender bulletins reflected only one earlier contract awarded to Digital Vibes before the Health Department deal, notes Daily Maverick. In 2018, the company scored a R3.9m communications contract from the Department of Co-operative Governance & Traditional Affairs (Cogta).

At the time, Mkhize happened to be the Minister in charge of Cogta, his first position in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet. In 2019, after Mkhize had been moved to the DoH, Digital Vibes won the NHI communications contract. The Health Department director general, Dr Sandile Buthelezi, has strongly denied that Mkhize influenced the 2019 contract.

“The Minister in any government department is not involved in any procurement process. That is the full prerogative of the sitting accounting officer at that department based on the PFMA (Public Finance Management Act),” Buthelezi told 702’s Clement Manyathela after Scorpio’s first exposé.

 

Scorpio’s latest investigation casts doubt over whether Hariram was actually in charge of Digital Vibes. It has been alleged that Mkhize’s associates, and not Hariram, pulled the strings at the company, reports Daily Maverick. Scorpio learnt from several well-placed sources that Hariram played little or no role in Digital Vibes’ most recent contract from the DoH. We were told that department officials thought Mather and Mitha ran the company.

Hariram was asked if she could present any documentation affirming her role as Digital Vibes’ principal director, such as the proposal or bid documents the company would have submitted for the DoH contract.

Daily Maverick reports that Scorpio didn’t get the documents, while her lawyer responded as follows:

“Digital Vibes staff did the bid and the administration to compile and submit, Radha [Hariram] signed what was necessary. Radha is a director of the company.”

Daily Maverick reports that Scorpio also learnt that Hariram was rarely, if ever, seen at the offices that Digital Vibes occupied in Houghton, Johannesburg throughout 2020, while it worked on the NHI and COVID-19 projects. “Almost the entire working world worked from home for most of the year 2020 for reasons that everyone knows. Radha was no different. Therefore your deduction that Radha not working from the office meant that she was not in control is feeble and hereby denied,” stated Pillay.

But, the report says, Hariram would have found it difficult to be at Digital Vibes’ Johannesburg offices, regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic. Scorpio established that Hariram worked at a Shell service station in Stanger as a full-time employee when both the Cogta and DoH contracts were awarded to Digital Vibes.

She resigned from her full-time position at the end of 2019 but continued working at the service station as a part-time worker until the end of 2020.

“Radha was not needed on a full-time basis for this contract. She had consultants to (do) the work. Please do not forget that Radha is a director, and she did not have any obligation to do any work (like an employee) for Digital Vibes,” explained her lawyer.

Before her time at the service station, Hariram worked “at the bank in Stanger for 30 years and almost everyone knew her, including Mather”, added Pillay.

This seems to confirm that Hariram does not have a background in the communications industry, as Scorpio reported in its first story.

 

Buthelezi told Parliament on Friday the department is co-operating with the SIU investigation. According to TimesLIVE, Buthelezi said one of the contracts flagged by the auditor-general and which is being investigated, was Digital Vibes.

“We have shared information with the SIU in terms of the work we have been doing. We have linked the SIU with the auditing firm dealing with Digital Vibes. I have been in constant communication with them and they are working together with the SIU. We do not want to pre-empt that investigation,” Buthelezi added.

 

Full Scorpio report on the Daily Maverick site (Open access)

 

Full Scorpio report on the Daily Maverick site (Open access)

 

Full TimesLIVE report (Open access)

 

 

See also MedicalBrief archives:

Mkhize ‘welcomes’ SIU probe into claims of COVID tenders for friends

 

Mkhize’s associates score from COVID-19 and NHI contracts

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