FROM OUR ARCHIVES: Exposed: DoH’s R150m Digital Vibes scandal – Zweli Mkhize associates charged millions for Covid-19 media briefings
Close associates of Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and other third parties pocketed roughly R90-million in suspicious payments emanating from a R150-million Covid-19 and National Health Insurance communications contract. In what may turn out to be the most shocking case of alleged Covid-19 looting uncovered to date, contractor Digital Vibes even charged the Department of Health millions of rands for scheduling Mkhize’s media briefings during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The former personal spokesperson and long-time friend of Dr Zweli Mkhize, Tahera Mather, and Mkhize’s former personal assistant, Naadhira Mitha, are at the centre of a massive alleged looting frenzy enabled by a questionable communications deal from the Department of Health (DoH).
Digital Vibes, an obscure firm controlled by Mather and Mitha, received an eye-watering R150-million for questionable communications services linked to the DoH’s nascent National Health Insurance (NHI) programme and government’s fight against Covid-19.
Of the R150-million Digital Vibes received from the DoH:
- Some R90-million was channelled to entities set up by Mather and Mitha, to businesses and personal accounts of Mather’s immediate family, and to other suspicious third parties, including the late AmaBhaca King Madzikane II Diko’s Royal Bhaca Projects
- Only about R40-million went towards recipients identified as legitimate service providers and other costs related to the DoH contract
- Roughly R20-million is still to be accounted for.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, who had Mather and Mitha at his side as communications strategists during his so-called ANC #Unity campaign in 2017, appears to have been a key figure in Digital Vibes’ alleged scheme.
The company charged the DoH millions of rands for “setting up” Mkhize’s media briefings, interviews and other public engagements regarding the Covid-19 pandemic.
Digital Vibes even got paid for “coordinating” Mkhize’s announcement of South Africa’s second wave of coronavirus infections on SABC news in December 2020, a task that would normally fall to the department’s own communications officials.
Before the firm’s focus pivoted to Covid-19, Digital Vibes also submitted bills for NHI-related projects that appear to have been massively inflated.
Payments to a host of other entities and individuals are yet to be verified and could potentially add to the figure of R90-million in dubious transfers.
Digital Vibes’ DoH earnings also bankrolled shopping sprees for luxury clothing brands, spa treatments, home renovations and other personal expenses, which we will unpack in an upcoming report.
Detailed queries were sent to all of the key role-players featured in this report, but we received no substantial responses from any of them.
“I don’t want to comment on anything,” said Mather.
Mitha ignored our messages.
Popo Maja, the DoH’s spokesperson, confirmed receipt of our queries.
“Will try to respond on deadline,” he wrote in his last email.
Mkhize’s spokesperson, Lwazi Manzi, said she “noted” our questions, but she did not provide responses from the minister.
Mkhize previously denied that he had played a role in the Digital Vibes contract.
“As you know, generally, ministers don’t get involved in procurement processes, and in this case I did not participate in the contracting process,” Mkhize recently told Stephen Grootes on SAfm.
Scorpio earlier reported that Digital Vibes received R82-million from the DoH deal. But this figure, as captured on the National Treasury’s Covid-19 expenditure database, excluded payments made for Digital Vibes’ NHI work and other transfers we have since identified.
The DoH paid Digital Vibes in 18 tranches between January 2020 and February 2021.
The company was appointed in November 2019 through a closed tender process that has drawn criticism from the Auditor-General.
The firm was supposed to deliver communications services for the NHI, but the department later changed its mandate to focus on the Covid-19 pandemic.
The latest instalment in Scorpio’s months-long investigation tracks disbursements from Digital Vibes that were directly funded by the money from the DoH.
It has come to light that Mkhize’s associates, Mather and Mitha, controlled Digital Vibes’ primary bank account, not the company’s supposed managing director, Radha Hariram.
We previously revealed that Hariram worked at a fuel station in her hometown, Stanger, during 2020, while Mather and Mitha ran Digital Vibes’ DoH contract from a rented office in Johannesburg.
Mather and Mitha aren’t directors of Digital Vibes, but all indications are that they effectively controlled the company.
Apart from huge payments to Mather’s and Mitha’s own entities, our investigation has also identified a range of other red flags.
This includes nearly R15-million in payments from Digital Vibes to three entities that were only established in 2020, after the DoH contract had commenced.
Even the late AmaBhaca King Madzikane II Diko’s Royal Bhaca Projects, one of the entities implicated in 2020’s PPE corruption saga, got a R1-million slice of the Digital Vibes pie.
Monetising the minister
In order to generate enough fat from the contract to pass on to all of these third parties, Digital Vibes essentially ripped off the DoH by means of two main methods.
Firstly, the company added huge mark-ups to services performed by subcontractors.
This seemingly occurred from the outset.
In January 2020, for instance, before Digital Vibes’ mandate was changed to focus on Covid-19, the company appointed a professional design studio to do animation work for an NHI awareness campaign.
For this, the subcontractor charged Digital Vibes less than R300,000. When Digital Vibes billed the DoH, however, it charged R1.1-million for the work. This constitutes a mark-up of more than 300% and generated more than R800,000 in pure profit.
Secondly, and perhaps more alarmingly, Digital Vibes effectively monetised Mkhize’s normal duties as minister — the DoH paid Digital Vibes millions of rands for “coordinating” the minister’s media appearances and interviews relating to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even if Mkhize had been completely unaware of his associates’ dealings, the alleged looting, in the very least, occurred under his nose.
In one example of this, Digital Vibes charged the DoH R3.65-million for Mkhize’s appearance on a SABC news bulletin in December 2020 to announce South Africa’s second wave of Covid-19 infections, along with other services listed on an invoice under “coverage of Minister interventions”.
“The agency coordinated a slot with SABC for the second wave announcement on prime time,” reads the invoice.
Normally, a government department’s own spokespersons or media liaison staff would manage a minister’s media appearances and other public engagements.
For some reason, however, the DoH paid Digital Vibes large sums of money for these tasks.
Digital Vibes pocketed millions of rands for the “setting up of prime time interviews, tailored specifically on the minister’s diary”, and for the “facilitation of live crossings for all media houses”, according to other invoices.
Sometimes, the company seemingly charged the DoH merely for being at Mkhize’s side as he moved between Covid-19 engagements.
An invoice from November 2020 includes a R1.9-million charge for, among other items, the following: “Accompanied the minister to obtain as much information for public dissemination [sic].”
Future reports in this series will further unpack examples of inflated prices and other questionable aspects of Digital Vibes’ billings.
Millions for Mather and Mitha
Our investigation, buttressed by financial records, invoices and other documents related to the deal, has enabled us to piece together perhaps the most shocking alleged Covid-19 corruption scheme uncovered to date.
The largest share of the R90-million in allegedly looted funds ended up in the accounts of companies set up by Mather and Mitha.
Both women worked on Mkhize’s so-called #Unity campaign before the ANC’s 2017 elective conference. After that, Mitha became Mkhize’s personal assistant, first when he was minister of cooperative governance and later at the DoH.
Mather has been described as a “family friend” of Mkhize. According to well-placed sources, their relationship dates back to the 1990s, when Mkhize served as the MEC for Health in KwaZulu-Natal.
Mather, her family members and Mitha were not the only recipients of large payments from Digital Vibes, via accounts of companies owned by them.
Other glaring red flags include huge payments from Digital Vibes’ primary bank account to obscure entities that seemingly served no business purpose other than receiving funds linked to the DoH deal.
An amount of more than R400,000 in cash was also withdrawn from the company’s account at bank tellers and ATMs.
By the look of things, Digital Vibes spent only a comparatively small portion of the R150-million it received from the DoH on executing its communications work for the department.
A preliminary analysis of the available records suggests that less than R40-million – or roughly 27% of Digital Vibes’ total earnings from the DoH — went towards legitimate expenses stemming from the DoH contract.
This includes staff salaries, payments for Covid-19 awareness adverts flighted on television or placed on billboards, rented office space, design work performed by subcontractors, design and maintenance work for the government’s coronavirus website, and other expenses.
Our research into Digital Vibes’ finances is ongoing, so the figure for legitimate expenses could still change.
Our latest investigation also found that Radha Hariram, Digital Vibes’ supposed managing director, only received about R2,5-million from the deal in the period before our first exposé forced the department to suspend the contract. The Special Investigating Unit is also investigating.
This further supports the notion that Mkhize’s associates, and not Hariram, controlled Digital Vibes.
We sent detailed queries to Hariram and to her attorney, but we received no feedback.
Digital Vibes forwarded about R50-million to entities controlled by Mather and Mitha and paid a further R10-million to Mather’s children, siblings and other family members.
Roughly R30-million went to other dubious third-party entities, including a company owned by the husband of one of Mkhize’s former Luthuli House colleagues, and also bankrolled shopping sprees for luxury fashion wear, spa treatments, groceries, expensive home renovations and an overseas holiday.
The largest recipient of the Digital Vibes “loot” is a shelf company called Composit Trade and Investments, which received more than R35-million.
According to company records, Mather became this entity’s sole director in 2015. The company was seemingly dormant for the greater part of its existence until, in July 2019, it made a filing to avoid being deregistered for failing to submit its annual returns.
What’s more, Composit Trade and Investments was only registered for value-added tax (VAT) in March 2020, a few months after it had received its first payments from Digital Vibes.
Mather’s company typically received money from Digital Vibes soon after the latter got paid by the DoH.
In May 2020, for instance, the DoH made a payment of R17.8-million to Digital Vibes. The following day, Digital Vibes forwarded R3.9-million to Composit Trade and Investments.
Payments made to a company called Strategeewhizz followed a similar pattern.
Strategeewhizz was established by Mitha in 2016, and it scored more than R15-million from Digital Vibes. Like Mather’s Composit Trade and Investments, Strategeewhizz also appears to have been dormant for the greater part of its existence.
Mitha left her job as Mkhize’s personal assistant at the DoH in around April 2020 to take up her new position at Digital Vibes.
Digital Vibes also paid R500,000 to an entity identified as “N Mitha Media Solutions”.
Other beneficiaries of large payments from Digital Vibes included pretty much Mather’s entire immediate family.
WT Graphics and Designs, whose sole director is Mather’s 29-year-old son, Wasim, received more than R7-million from Digital Vibes.
This entity was only registered in May 2020, one month before Digital Vibes began forwarding portions of the DoH money to Wasim’s company.
Wasim Mather also pocketed R350,000 paid by Digital Vibes directly into his personal bank account.
Mather’s 22-year-old daughter, Suhaila, received nearly R1.5-million from Digital Vibes. (Coincidentally, Suhaila and Nokulinda Mkhize, the minister’s daughter, are listed as co-directors in an entity called Aweh Consulting.)
During the early months of 2020, Digital Vibes transferred R280,000 in three instalments to Suhaila’s personal bank account.
However, in October 2020, she registered a business called Suhaila Mather Consulting. Three months later, in late January 2021, this business received R1.2-million from Digital Vibes.
Payments totalling another R1.5-million flowed from the Digital Vibes account to Signet Health Consultants. This entity’s sole director is Mather’s brother-in-law, Shiraz Hoosen.
Hoosen’s wife, and Tahera Mather’s sister, is former SABC journalist Hasina Kathrada.
Throughout 2020 and early 2021, Digital Vibes transferred roughly R1-million to Kathrada’s company, Hasina Kathrada Communications. Documents in our possession indicate that Kathrada billed Digital Vibes for “PR and Media consulting” services.
Hoosen and Kathrada both stated that they had “no comment” after “careful consideration” of our queries.
Digital Vibes also made several payments totalling R10.5-million to Mateta Projects. This entity’s sole director is Mdu Mthethwa, the husband of former Luthuli House staffer Makhosazana Mthethwa.
Mthethwa did not respond to queries sent on WhatsApp and via email. When we called him on his cellphone, he asked us to call him back “in an hour”, but he did not answer our subsequent calls.
His wife, Makhosazana, Mather and Mkhize have been photographed together during Mkhize’s stint as ANC treasurer-general, as shown in one of our previous reports.
A significant slice of Digital Vibes’ DoH “loot” went to two entities that share the same address in the eNseleni township outside Richards Bay.
One of these companies, Mkokwana Events, received R6.1-million. The company was only registered as a business in October 2020, about a month before it received its first payment from Digital Vibes.
The other Richards Bay business, Bevels Communications and Digiatal Media [sic], got R4.8-million. (The spelling error features in the company’s actual name, as registered at the CIPC.)
Neither company appears to have any track record as a legitimate business. Their respective directors, Sibahle Ngcobo and Bonisiwe Keswa, did not answer queries related to the payments, and they later appeared to have switched off their cellphones.
Meanwhile, the transfers to Diko’s Royal Bhaca Projects, totalling R1-million, were done in March 2020. It is not clear why Digital Vibes paid Royal Bhaca, but Mather was familiar with Khusela Diko, the late AmaBhaca king’s wife and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s former spokesperson.
Mather, Diko and Mkhize posed together for a photograph during a trip to New York in 2017. Diko said she was not aware of any payments from Digital Vibes to Royal Bhaca.
“I was not involved in my husband’s commercial activities,” she stated.
Diko said she knew Mather from when she (Diko) worked in the ANC’s communications office.
“The picture you have sent me was taken during a working visit we both were part of with the then treasurer-general [Mkhize] in New York,” said Diko. DM
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