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HomeMedico-LegalHealth oversight committee ‘shielded’ Mkhize during Digital Vibes scandal

Health oversight committee ‘shielded’ Mkhize during Digital Vibes scandal

The Opposition has also slated Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Health for shielding former Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize from being questioned on the Digital Vibes scandal, prior to his resignation.

At a special sitting last Friday (1 October) after the release of the Special Investigating Unit’s report into the R150m Digital Vibes contract, the DA’s Siviwe Gwarube said that the committee had failed at its oversight role. Health Minister Joe Phaahla said there had been “lapses in the [Health] Department that had initially not been picked up upon”.

Phaahla said the issue was first picked up by Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke who spotted irregularities in the tender during an audit.

Law firm Ngubane and Associates was then brought in to investigate, and then the Special Investigating Unit also sought to probe the matter and asked President Cyril Ramaphosa to be granted a proclamation, reports IOL.

“The AG first flagged the issue of overcharging, but once the Ngubane team came in, they picked up serious irregularities in terms of the procurement process,” Phaahla said.

“Itʼs clear there were some failings in internal mechanisms, in terms of internal audits and the external audit. Soon after it was picked up by the AG, there was a whistle-blower report to the SIU. A few weeks after Ngubane and associates were appointed, the SIU also made a submission to be granted the authority to investigate further. The president then signed the proclamation giving them authority,” he said.

Digital Vibes had initially been given a contract in 2019 to deal with the issue of the National Health Insurance. However, when COVID-19 broke out, the scope was then changed to handle communication around the pandemic.

The report details how now-disgraced ex-health minister Zweli Mkhize pushed for the lucrative tender to be awarded to Digital Vibes, the company run by two of his associates, Tahera Mather and Naadhira Mitha. The release of the SIU report into Digital Vibes also comes a week after the Department of Health’s Director-General Dr Sandile Buthelezi was placed on suspension for his alleged role in the saga.

The SIU found that the procurement processes in respect of the NHI and COVID-19 media campaigns were irregular and the subsequent contracts are void. This resulted in irregular expenditure amounting to R150m, and fruitless and wasteful expenditure amounting to approximately R80m, having been incurred by the NDOH.

As reported last week in MedicalBrief, the SIU has obtained evidence to support its contentions that:

• Mkhize improperly and possibly unlawfully gave instructions to the then director-general (DG) of the NDOH Precious Matsoso to appoint Tahera Mather as a “communication expert consultant for the NDOH in respect of the envisaged NHI media campaign”. Digital Vibes was appointed on 29 November 2019, and then appointed Mather and [her niece Naadhira] Mitha as purported contractors for purposes of the NHI media campaign”.

• Mkhize approved a R46m media campaign 52 days after the service level agreement (SLA) between the NDOH and Digital Vibes had been signed, and approved another R85m six months after the SLA had been signed.

• Dr Anban Pillay, acting DG of the NDOH, should be prosecuted for financial misconduct. Evidence also indicates that he committed fraud in making “numerous material intentional misrepresentations to the National Treasury”, among others.

• Evidence obtained supports “the referral thereof to the president for purposes of taking executive action against the minister”, and “the institution of disciplinary action against officials in the NDOH” – namely Pillay, Popo Maja (head of communications), Shireen Pardesi (chief of staff), Dr Sandile Buthelezi (recently suspended DG), Senzeni Ngubane (member of the technical evaluation committee or TEC), Khubane Ngobese (clerk in the department and personal assistant to Pardesi), Reginald Ngcobo (TEC member) and Ian van Der Merwe (CFO). The SIU report itemises all the irregularities, offences, misdemeanours, committed by these officials. The executive action against Mkhize is now moot, as he has resigned.

Mather and Mitha were subpoenaed under the SIU Act “to be questioned regarding their involvement in the NHI and COVID-19 media campaign related matters”, however their legal representative said they “would refuse to answer any questions, based on their Constitutional right against self-incrimination”.

The South African reports that the DA’s Siviwe Gwarube did not hold back and slammed ANC MPs for not seeing to it that Mkhize appeared before the same committee to give his side of the story. He had been scheduled to appear several months ago, but pulled out at the last minute, saying he was following advice given by his legal team.

“The reality is that we have to take responsibility where we have erred. Members of this committee, a number of them, particularly members of the ANC, shielded the former minister from accountability and blocked that meeting from happening, talking about sub judice rules, talking about how the matter could not be properly ventilated,” said Gwarube.

“With the publication of this SIU report it is absolutely clear that because of the majority held by the governing party in this committee, we failed in our duties because we had an opportunity to pose direct questions to the former minister, but we didn’t, because we were blocked from doing that.”

The suspension of senior officials for their involvement in the scandal, including Pillay and Maja, has, meanwhile, worsened the staffing crisis at the Health Department, admitted Phaahla.

“It has had a devastating impact on our capacity. If you can imagine, we are just at the tail-end of the third wave and looking forward to how we can stabilise the health system. (And while) we are pushing the vaccination campaign.”

However, he added, the department was working hard to fill all vacant positions, and the suspensions should lead to the appointment of new people, reports News24.

Aslam Dasoo, of the Progressive Health Forum, said: “That the national health department has been in shambles for a while is well known. (But) taking off so many senior personnel in one go is obviously going to cause a huge vacuum.”

In the meantime, Hawks head Advocate Godfrey Lebeya said in an interview on Radio 702 that the SIU had submitted more than 50 documents already in relation to the scandal.

“We had started investigating this case way back in May, and while some of our investigations may take longer than expected, we need to remind the public that we are dealing with 2,500 corruption cases, and more than 20,000 cases, generally. A number of drafts (Digital Vibes) are already being worked on, but because of the complicated nature of some of the statements, it is taking time.

“South Africa can rest assured that we are doing everything that is expected of us, and our conviction rate is never lower than 80%.”

 

IOL article – How auditor-general, whistleblower, lifted the lid on Digital Vibes (Open access)

 

702 Podcast – Hawks investigating those involved in Digital Vibes scandal

 

The South African article – Digital Vibes: ANC MPs accused of shielding Mkhize from accountability (Open access)

 

Digital Vibes: Suspensions to have 'devastating impact on capacity of health dept' – Phaahla (Restricted access)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

SIU report into Digital Vibes: More heads on the block

 

Digital Vibes: Health DG Sandile Buthelezi also suspended – more to come?

 

SIU: Mkhize ignored Cabinet resolutions; processes manipulated

 

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