Digital Vibes, an obscure communications company from KwaZulu-Natal, appointed two close associates of Health Minister Zweli Mkhize as paid consultants after it secured an irregular communications contract from the Department of Health (DoH).
The DoH appointed Digital Vibes in late 2019 through a contentious closed tender to provide communications services for the government’s National Health Insurance (NHI) roll-out.
The scope of work was extended in March 2020 to include communications services for Covid-19.
In a period of just nine months, the firm obtained orders from the DoH for Covid-19 projects valued at more than R82-million.
The same company also clinched a contract from the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) in 2018, while Mkhize led this department.
In both instances, Tahera Mather, Mkhize’s long-serving personal spokesperson and alleged family friend, scored consultancy jobs from Digital Vibes after it had secured the government contracts.
The DoH denies that there was a conflict of interest, but it says that it is currently investigating the deal.
Digital Vibes has no website. Its business address is listed as a residential property in KwaDukuza (formerly Stanger) on KwaZulu-Natal’s North Coast, according to company records.
The company’s principal director, Radha Hariram, doesn’t appear to have any visible footprint in the communications industry.
Hariram and Mather are both originally from Stanger.
After Digital Vibes won the NHI contract, the company also appointed Naadhira Mitha, a former assistant private secretary in Mkhize’s office when he was minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs.
In other words, two associates of Mkhize have pocketed emergency Covid-19 cash from the DoH via their consultancy work for a company appointed by the department. They were asked how much money they were earning from the contract, but neither responded.
Mather has been at Mkhize’s side as a spokesperson or media aide for many years. Her social media accounts are awash with pictures and other content relating to her work alongside Mkhize. Some of the pictures date back to 2014.
But sources familiar with the health minister’s circles say their relationship goes as far back as the 1990s, when Mkhize was MEC for Health in KwaZulu-Natal.
Mather was a “family friend” of Mkhize and his family, one source claimed.
This appears to be backed up by interactions on social media between Mather and family members of Mkhize.
In May 2020, a known family member of the minister wished Mather a happy birthday on Facebook. He called her “auntie”. This family member frequently travels in the minister’s official entourage
“Thank you my darling boy,” Mather responded in the comments section.
Mather and Mitha are not listed as directors of Digital Vibes.
But Mitha appears to have played some role in the day-to-day running of the business after it secured the DoH contract.
Scorpio established that she was listed as a contact person for the offices Digital Vibes rented in Houghton, Johannesburg. The company rented the space for only a year and vacated these offices in December 2020.
The DoH and Mkhize confirmed that Mather “assisted the office of the [ANC] TG [treasurer-general] with specific activities” when Mkhize occupied that position at the ANC’s headquarters.
They also confirmed that Mitha had worked as Mkhize’s personal assistant.
However, they don’t view any of this as a problem.
“We further confirm that the individuals referred to in the questions are not employed by the Department of Health. Therefore, the department has no legal reason or authority to limit their participation in any business activity or other employment opportunities,” reads a written response.
Nevertheless, the DoH is investigating the contract.
It said it could not respond to several of our queries in light of an ongoing probe by the department’s director-general.
Efforts to obtain comment from Mather, Mitha and Hariram were less successful.
Mitha did not respond to detailed queries about her work with Mkhize, her connection to the rented offices in Houghton or her work for Digital Vibes.
Hariram vowed to respond to queries about her ties to Mather and Mitha, among other issues, but she failed to do so.
Scorpio sought to learn from Mather exactly how she knew Hariram and how she got roped in for the DoH and Cogta work.
During a brief phone call last week, Mather denied that she was close to Hariram.
“I left Stanger in 2014,” she told us.
Before asking for detailed queries to be emailed to her, she admitted that she had worked as a consultant on Digital Vibes’ Cogta and DoH contracts.
She said she did not get involved in the contract between the DoH and Digital Vibes because of her relationship with Mkhize.
But, we wanted to know, was it not perhaps more problematic that she benefited from the deal as a paid consultant to Digital Vibes?
She did not respond to this and other specific queries.
“I note that some of the questions you pose, insinuate corrupt behaviour by myself and others. These insinuations and allegations are defamatory and damaging of me and others,” she wrote in her only emailed response.
It remains unclear how the DoH identified Digital Vibes as a suitable service provider, or how the funds allocated to the company were spent.
Digital Vibes’ Cogta gig
Before Mkhize joined President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet, Mather and Mitha worked as communications consultants in Mkhize’s so-called #Unity campaign. This was in the build-up to the ANC’s 2017 Nasrec conference.
After failing to secure the governing party’s top spot, Mkhize became minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs.
In August 2018, about five months after Mkhize took up his new position, Cogta awarded a R3.9-million contract to Digital Vibes. The company was appointed to provide communications services for the Municipal Infrastructure Support Agent (Misa), a Cogta entity.
Mather, fresh from working on Mkhize’s #Unity campaign, got appointed by Digital Vibes as a paid consultant.
She was, by all appearances, involved in this campaign right from the get-go.
On 5 August 2018, only two days after the government’s tender bulletin listed Digital Vibes as the winning bidder, Mather posted a picture of Mkhize on her Facebook timeline. It was accompanied by a media statement that mentioned Misa.
But Mather apparently wore several hats during this period, as suggested by some of the content on her social media accounts.
In July 2018, after the Cogta contract was advertised, and just before Digital Vibes was announced as the winner, Mather posted photos of Mkhize at the SABC’s studios. She was either with him or posting pictures someone else had taken.
Meanwhile, articles in Noseweek magazine from March and September 2018 named Mather as Mkhize’s personal spokesperson.
In other words, during the same period in which Mather appeared to have worked for Mkhize, she also pocketed money from a contractor appointed by Cogta, her boss’s department.
Add the governing ANC to the mix and the lines become even more blurred.
In January 2019, Mather posted pictures of Mkhize wearing party regalia at ANC events, including at its manifesto launch in Durban.
Days later, she again posted information relating to the Cogta contract.
Mitha, meanwhile, worked in Mkhize’s office at Cogta as an assistant private secretary. She had a Cogta email address and a direct telephone line at the department’s headquarters in Pretoria.
Like Mather, Mitha also seemingly played more than one role during this time-frame.
Photos on a third party’s Instagram account show Mitha alongside Mkhize in April 2019, while he was handing out ANC T-shirts during a door-to-door campaign in Zandspruit, Johannesburg.
Move to Health Department
In May 2019, Ramaphosa moved Mkhize from Cogta to the DoH.
Under Mkhize’s stewardship, the DoH soon made it clear that it would tackle the NHI as a key priority.
During a Cabinet meeting in July 2019, the DoH was told to develop “a clear media strategy” for the NHI roll-out. This is according to answers Mkhize later submitted in Parliament in response to questions from opposition MPs regarding Digital Vibes’ appointment.
Starting in August 2019, the department, Mkhize and other stakeholders began posting a stream of NHI-related content on Twitter.
Mather retweeted many of these tweets. She also created her own NHI content on Twitter and Facebook.
It is not clear whether she was getting paid for these posts or whether her tweets formed part of a formal NHI marketing drive.
But there were plans to appoint “a skilled professional in this area of work”, according to Mkhize’s answers in Parliament.
Those plans came to fruition on 15 November 2019, when the DoH appointed Digital Vibes through a closed tender process. Digital Vibes had therefore followed Mkhize from Cogta to the DoH, in a manner of speaking.
In the months before and after the contract was awarded, Mather appeared to have been as committed to the Mkhize cause as ever.
She posted several pictures of Mkhize at events and gatherings, including a series of photos of Mkhize and other top government leaders posted on 14 and 15 November 2019.
This was followed by more photos of Mkhize in January 2020.
Without Mather’s input, we cannot say whether she had taken these pictures herself, why she was posting this content or if she was doing this as a paid media consultant.
Digital Vibes didn’t get much time to work on the NHI roll-out.
On 25 March 2020, the DoH extended its scope of work to include Covid-19. It was for these services that Digital Vibes secured orders worth an eye-watering R82-million.
Mkhize has stated in Parliament that the “current expenditure to date is R82,471,856.80”. The latest Covid-19 procurement data from the National Treasury (NT) show that the DoH has so far transferred R43.4-million to Digital Vibes.
The largest order, for a “mass media campaign”, totalled nearly R47-million, according to the NT records.
Digital Vibes was also paid for the “printing and distribution of 35 million pamphlets” and “Covid-19 related consulting services”, the data tell us.
In June 2020, when Mkhize first fielded queries from an MP regarding Digital Vibes, the minister explained that the company had been paid R2.1-million “to conduct media interviews”.
Because the DoH had deviated from a normal, open bid process, the Auditor-General later flagged the deal as irregular.
In its 2019-2020 annual report, the DoH said the closed bid was necessary because of the “criticality” of the NHI and because “the ceiling in the compensation of employees” barred it from appointing a media expert from within its own ranks.
Judging by Mkhize’s responses in Parliament, the DoH’s decision to extend Digital Vibes’ scope of work to include Covid-19 has also come under fire.
“This deviation was supported by National Treasury on a letter dated 24 June 2020 in terms of emergency procurement,” Mkhize said in defence of the decision.
By that time, Digital Vibes had been working on Covid-19 communications projects for several months.
Mkhize explained that the DoH had no choice but to get going with Covid-19 awareness campaigns and related media projects before the NT approved the deviation.
“The department maintains that the transaction in question was not irregular as there was a contract already in place,” he added.
When Digital Vibes’ contract expired in November 2020, the DoH asked the NT for permission to extend its services “on a month-to-month basis for a period not exceeding four months”, explained Mkhize.
The deal will therefore remain in place until 31 March 2021, “while [a] procurement process to appoint a new service provider” unfolds.
By the time the contract ends, Digital Vibes would have earned tens of millions of rands in revenue from the DoH.
This is brisk business for an obscure little firm from KwaZulu-Natal’s North Coast. DM
"Reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them." ~ Jules Verne
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved