An independent forensic investigation has found irregularities in the awarding of a R150m contract by the national Department of Health to an obscure communications company run by Health Minister Zweli Mkhize’s former staff, reports MedicalBrief. After initially denying that there was anything untoward, the DoH now admits to “glaring irregularities”.
The investigation found that the tender contravened the Public Finance Management Act. There were irregularities in the tender bid process, ranging from inconsistencies in the bid committees to a lack of disclosure of conflict of interest. An amount of R37m awarded to the company Digital Vibes constituted fruitless and wasteful expenditure, and that R35m was awarded for work on COVID-19 before its contract was expanded.
The matter was first exposed by the Scorpio investigative journalism unit in Daily Maverick, outlining how Digital Vibes had been appointed in 2019 through a closed tender to provide communication services for the government’s National Health Insurance (NHI) rollout, with the scope of the work extended in March 2020 to include communications services for COVID-19. Digital Vibes’ key players were Mkhize’s former personal assistant, Tahera Mather, and his former secretary, Naadhira Mitha.
A parallel investigation into the contract by the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) is still under way.
This week, Mkhize released a summary of the forensic investigation report, saying he had been legally advised not to disclose the full details for fear of jeopardising the remedial action being undertaken. The is included disciplinary action against implicated staff and an investigation into possible fraud and corruption, he said.
In his statement (see below) Mkhize stressed that the DoH had appointed tax assurance advisory firm Ngubane to investigate the contract after concerns were raised about it by the Auditor-General in December 2020.
Mkhize said he was not involved in the awarding of the contract to Digital Vibes and had not influenced the appointment of employees or consultants to the company. He denied Mather and Mitha were close associates, saying they were “comrades” rather than “personal friends”.
SowetanLIVE reports that following the DoH admitting that there were “glaring irregularities” found in the awarding of a multimillion-rand contract to Digital Vibes. AfriForum submitted a complaint to the Public Protector on Tuesday, asking Mkhize to step aside.
“The ANC should have Dr Zweli Mkhize step aside pending the outcome of the investigation against him. Anything less would be tantamount to a betrayal of the communities who suffer under the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Johan Kruger, AfriForum's head of community development.
Mkhize has stated that since he fully supported the SIU investigation into the matter, there was no need for him to step aside while it conducted its work.
Core communication functions had never been outsourced to Digital Vibes, he said, referring to another Daily Maverick report , this week, that disclosed millions of rands of invoices allegedly submitted by the firm to the DoH for scheduling media interviews and public engagements. “There were no speeches which were ever prepared by a service provider and all core content was developed by the Department of Health officials,” Mkhize said in his statement.
“From the outset, I wish to publicly state that the outrage, anger, questions, comments, expression of disappointment and disgust by members of the public with what has been reported in the media regarding this Digital Vibes contract is well justified. It is the very same red flags that were highlighted by the Auditor General in December that made me request the Director General to not just hand over this investigation to internal audit but to urgently appoint a firm of investigators who would have the necessary capacity and independence to scrutinise all the documents related to this contract.”
Mkhize said that, contrary to media reports, he did not appoint Mitha or anyone else to be his spokesperson during his 2017 ANC campaign.
In some of the first public reaction, Financial Mail opinion writer Giulietta Talevi poured scorn on the DoH's 'plaintive and risible' plea for time and space to deal with allegations. She was reacting the DoH statement: “It would not at all serve much of a purpose if allegations that are under investigation are responded to publicly and not through an already established formal investigative process that will lead to proper legal recourse/action being taken.”
Talevi writes that there’s nothing like being lectured on accountability and “due process” by a department that doesn't understand the concepts. “Had Mkhize any notion of the idea, he would have taken temporary leave while the Special Investigating Unit concludes its probe .. The allegations, if proved true, could be fatal for Mkhize’s career, in part because they involve irregular spending of money meant to alleviate the most punishing health crisis to face SA, at a time where Mkhize himself is the figurative face of the country’s response.”
“It makes it worse for Mkhize that the Digital Vibes obscenity comes amid new allegations of how he, while MEC for finance in KwaZulu-Natal in 2005, helped transfer millions from the state-owned Ithala Bank to pay for Jacob Zuma’s criminal defence in the arms deal case. Mkhize was never the most comfortable of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ministers. His longevity, let alone his ethics, now looks decidedly questionable.”
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