South Africa

ANALYSIS

Minister Mkhize’s special leave also creates many special problems

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Simon Dawson / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Zweli Mkhize. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

The decision by President Cyril Ramaphosa to allow Dr Zweli Mkhize to go on special leave from his position as health minister leads to huge speculation about what will follow.

There are many questions to answer about Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize going on special leave. Some of them are:

  • Why did the minister not resign?
  • Does he really believe he can return to his position?
  • Why is it that the Minister of Tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, is now the acting health minister?

And all of this is happening during a once-in-a-century pandemic, when the health system is near breaking point and the political mastery of different constituencies with varied technical problems is vitally important.

There can be no doubt that Mkhize has gone on special leave because of Daily Maverick’s reporting on the Digital Vibes scandal.

While Mkhize has denied any wrongdoing on his part, the evidence against him has continued to grow. The fact that it was a company run by his former personal assistant, founded in lies, invoicing millions of rands to arrange interviews with him, in a contract with his department, was surely too much to bear. The pressure on him, much of it public, was too great.

And yet, his request to go on special leave, rather than to resign, suggests that he is not ready to permanently vacate office, or even believes he may be able to cling on to his position in Cabinet.

The rush of events around the final announcement from the Presidency that Mkhize was going on special leave will leave cynics wondering if it was choreographed.

At 11.30 on Monday night it was announced that Mkhize was going to the Northern Cape – a province suffering from a high number of Covid-19 cases, but without as large a media presence as Johannesburg.

At around 2pm on Tuesday, Mkhize said at a press conference that he had met with President Cyril Ramaphosa and asked him if he could go on special leave.

At 3pm, the ANC’s National Working Committee (NWC) held a briefing fronted by the Deputy Secretary-General, Jessie Duarte. While she did not take questions, she read from a prepared NWC statement that they welcomed Mkhize’s decision to appear before the ANC’s Integrity Commission.

The briefing had not completely finished before the Presidency’s statement was released, saying Ramaphosa had agreed that Mkhize should go on special leave.

Certainly, it was a confluence of events that looked very carefully executed.

For the moment, this decision would appear to take a very difficult problem from Ramaphosa’s hands.

While he might have indeed wanted to fire Mkhize, it is still not clear who his replacement would be. There are several options, but those candidates have their drawbacks. (Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma may find it difficult to work with some of the scientists playing important roles right now, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi was despised by Cosatu when he was health minister, etc.)

Also, it would lead to more pressure on Ramaphosa to implement a Cabinet reshuffle – a move he may not yet be ready to make.

Thus, this decision eases the immediate pressure. But not for long.

Ramaphosa has said several times that he was awaiting the final report into the Digital Vibes saga by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU). The unit has confirmed that it intends to complete the report by “the end of June”. That is only three weeks away.

It is important to examine the evidence to see if the SIU could possibly come to a different conclusion than the one much of the public has drawn: that Mkhize is involved in corruption.

As the journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh has revealed, money went from the health department to Digital Vibes, a company which is, in reality, controlled by Mkhize’s former personal assistant Tahera Mather. Digital Vibes received R150-million in a contract Mkhize himself says was awarded irregularly. The company invoiced the department millions of rands for arranging interviews that could have been organised by the department’s own staff (including more than R3.5-million just for setting up an interview with the SABC).

And the money… well, some of that ended up with Mkhize’s son. And paying for maintenance work on the minister’s private house.

Even without the link between Mkhize and Mather, it would seem impossible for a Cabinet minister to explain why so much money was being paid just for interviews that all media organisations would have conducted for free, especially during the pandemic.

If these are the facts, how could the SIU ever come to the conclusion that Mkhize is innocent?

And if the SIU cannot come to a different conclusion, then what is the point of waiting before taking decisive action?

Perhaps Ramaphosa, confronted with an ANC leader with a long history and who has played an important role in the last 30 years, wants to be absolutely certain before he moves. Perhaps he is waiting for the SIU report to make it impossible for Mkhize to claim he is innocent, and to be forced into resigning.

It may also be that Ramaphosa wants to avoid having to step into the tension over the ANC National Executive Committee resolution that people “charged” with wrongdoing must step aside and the Nasrec resolution that those “implicated” must step aside. Particularly when Ace Magashule will be making arguments about this issue in court when he challenges his suspension as ANC secretary-general.

There is another possibility.

It may be that Mkhize feels he can brazen it all out, that he can survive, and that perhaps daring Ramaphosa to fire him could earn him a prominent slot in the opposing bloc.

This may seem odd, considering the current political climate. But for much of Mkhize’s career other people have been able to do the same. Mkhize was treasurer of the ANC when Jacob Zuma was president, the man who came back from the cold and then survived scandal after scandal for almost a decade. Mkhize may think that nothing much has changed, and that he may somehow be able to cling on.

In the meantime, Kubayi-Ngubane now has an incredibly tough job.

In many democracies, the minister of health is one of the toughest portfolios, but now, during a pandemic, it is even worse, the stress is greater, the responsibility is massive.

The job requires detailed knowledge of constituencies that involve patients, hospital managers, unions, health MECs, premiers, doctors, nurses, scientists, and now, those in charge of the vaccination programme.

It is a tribute to Mkhize’s political and technical ability that he has been able to master this.

He has also been a good communicator. Managing a pandemic demands this. The public needs updates regularly and often, and any vacuum leads to disinformation at a crucial time, with terrible consequences.

It would be unfair to pummel Kubayi-Ngubane with technical questions about the US Food and Drug Administration and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at this moment – but the public still needs to be kept in the loop.

Perhaps the worst of this entire situation is this: It may be that we don’t yet know everything that happened and that there are still more revelations to come.

Whatever happens, it is hard to imagine Mkhize coming back to his position, and ever enjoying the political power he once had. DM

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All Comments 17

  • Spot on Stephen. But this saga is far from over. There are too many questions unanswered, but will be almost impossible to establish. 1. Is this really “special leave”, and did Mkhize really initiated it? I don’t think so. This was simply a compromise between CR and Mkhize to try and keep the issue as much as possible out of the public domain. 2. Why was Kubayi-Ngubane appointed, out of the blue? Surely Ramaphosa could have appointed someone from the private sector to at least run the Covid-19 programme, at least the vaccination process. Now this will become even more messy. The so-called “command council” is simply unequipped to deal with this, leaving the whole South Africa at risk. 3. I do not believe Ramaphosa and others in the ANC did NOT know about the fraud case. It was simply hidden from the public. 4. I am convinced that the SIU do not need a month to do their investigation on this fairly easy investigative matter. I think that whatever they eventually come up with will still be a cover-up. After all, they are not really independent

  • Another strange situation: Where is Mkize’s deputy, Joe Phaahle? At least he has a medical background and was supposedly in the loop with all recent health events. But then, seeing that Covid and the world authorities have killed tourism, there is not much to do for a tourism minister except to find ways to spend the department’s budget on something trivial.

    • Like excluding white owned hospitality institutions from government funding to address the Covid-19 losses (which seemingly by magic only affected black owned hospitality?)

  • Hi Stephen, there is a gangrenous culture of flagrant disrespect that is eating the flesh of our South African values – and this comes from the highest levels of governance. Disrespect for the employed who pay their taxes, only to watch in dismay as it is stolen, squandered and obsequiosly flashed in our faces; disrespect for the poor who are kept in poverty and ignorance so that they can be manipulated come election time; disrespect for those dependant on the public sector for health, welfare and their livelihoods, while poorly/fraudulently educated, unskilled, arrogant, selfserving politicians enjoy the fat of the land created from the sweat of the working class. The good people of South Africa, the masses, are exhausted, and suffer crushing disappointed each time this ANC culture of corruption is spotlit. We have always been a people undergirded by hope and faith, and joy in our diversity – but we are being systematically eroded through disrespect.

    • The communist plan is always to break the existing order down (the glorious revolution, usually millions of citizens die during this faze) and then “build it up in their dictatorial style.

  • CR is again playing Trivial Pursuit by appointing this absolutely minister as the acting minister of health. Are we really that unimportant to him. It really is time to stop tax money flowing to these idiots.

  • If the minister claims innocence, in the midst of all the evidence he has to admit that he was not fit for office. Either way you resign. That is a basic tenant of political life that seems to be absent in South Africa. The spin around special leave is sickening.

  • The other big issue that this saga has highlighted is that Deputy Ministers are in jobs for pals – if they’re not legally able to step into an executive role when the Minister is not available, what else could they possibly be there to do? Time to shed the lot of them.

    • Exactly! What are deputy ministers there for if not to step in if and when the minister is unable to attend to his or her job…for example because he is on special leave? ‘Load – shed’ them all!

  • I find this turn of events tragic. I find it hard to dislike or resent Mkhize – I believe he has sincerely done his best to serve the country during this crisis and mostly done a decent job under the circumstances. Yet all the evidence suggests he is in the wrong here, and if so, he should resign. It seems to me that this is most likely a case of a very busy person making some bad decisions in a milieu – government and party – where ‘casual corruption’ has become all too normal and where he trusted the wrong people. Are Mkhize’s sins on a par with those of a Zuma? No. The vehicle (a 2003 land cruiser) received by his son was laughably ancient – the EFF brigade wouldn’t be seen dead in it. But must he go? I fear so. The other issue highlighted here is that when a party becomes so corrupt, few decent or competent people want to work for it, making it incredibly hard for the president to find a competent substitute for Mkhize. We should dissolve all our current political parties and reboot this democracy.

    • I agree that Mkize seems to be a likeable enough chap, and also that his sins pale by comparison to Zuma, but not that he’s done a ‘decent enough job under the circumstances’. He’s done an appalling job. He carries the full and undiluted political responsibility for our hopeless vaccine programme. We can fret all we like about when what was ordered and when we entered the procurement race , and vaccine ‘apartheid’ and whether AZ vaccine should have been sold, but what is undeniable is that SA is last behind any country we care about and might want to compare ourselves to. As the world opens up, SA is isolated and unvaccinated in the midst of a third wave, with worse to come if a 4th wave becomes our Summer companion. Again! Mkize should go for no other reason than that he and his Government failed us when we needed effective leadership the most.

      • Absolutely. but now we are in worse situation than before. I’m afraid she is on a par with the Weekend Special. This is an irrational decision and I doubt any good will come from it.

  • A disappointing saga about Mhkize-I always thought he was better than his cogoverning comrades!How ridiculous and dangerous to put the Tourism Minister in the Covid hot seat- that position requires somebody with either medical knowledge or organizational skills- if the well of the ANC has dried up , look for talent further afield- there is a lot out there among the private sector or civic organisations – this move in the midst of a deadly pandemic