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Northern Cape government is yet to decide on fate of senior health officials facing fraud charges

The Northern Cape government is still deciding whether or not to act against two of its top health officials who appeared in court this week on charges of fraud and corruption. Opposition parties and trade unions are calling for them to be suspended.

The fate of two of the Northern Cape health department’s top officials, who have been arrested for fraud and corruption, remains uncertain despite calls from some opposition parties and trade unions to suspend them immediately.

Acting department head Dr Dion Theys (as we explain lower down, his current position is unclear) and the department’s chief financial officer, Daniel Gaborone, appeared in the Kimberley Magistrates’ Court this week. The charges relate to allegations around the issuing of a personal protective equipment (PPE) tender valued at R43-million without following the correct procurement procedures in 2020.

Department spokesperson Lebogang Majaha said the department is still managing the internal process on the way forward before it decides on Theys and Gaborone’s future in the department. “We will share communication as soon as we have come to a conclusion regarding this matter,” Majaha told Spotlight.

According to the Hawks spokesperson in the province, Nomthandazo Mnisi, both Theys and Gaborone are charged with fraud and contravening the Public Finance Management Act. The act, among others, provides for certain requirements that public officials must follow in managing public finances in national and provincial departments. It aims to secure transparency, accountability and sound financial management in government and public institutions.

Mnisi said a thorough probe by the Hawks’ Serious Corruption Investigation team led to the arrests. The accused were granted bail of R20,000 each and will appear in court again on 27 September.

Arrests welcomed

Some opposition parties and trade unions are calling for the immediate suspension of Theys and Gaborone.

The DA’s Northern Cape spokesperson, Isak Fritz, told Spotlight they do not yet have information on the companies implicated in the matter. “But what we do know is that these two officials are not new to corruption in the department, and that is why we are calling for their immediate suspension.”

Theys was arrested and appeared in court in March 2021 on a different charge relating to lease agreements concluded in 2014 for nursing students’ accommodation to the value of R96-million. He was granted bail of R30,000.

“This is not even a matter to be discussed anymore,” said Fritz. “Theys is being arrested by the Hawks for the second time in less than six months and we cannot accept that, so this matter has to be taken very [seriously].”

According to Fritz, Gaborone too is not new to controversy. “He was previously implicated in a case where he procured water purifiers and oxygen machines for the department of health facilities in the province at inflated prices in return for [a] kickback… ”

Attempts to obtain comment from Theys and Gaborone were unsuccessful.

Fritz insists that the health department must take full responsibility for wrongdoing by instituting its own internal disciplinary proceedings and remove any further risk posed to the institution by individuals such as Theys and Gaborone. “Now that Dr Theys and Gaborone are implicated in yet another case, we cannot accept that either of them continues to operate from positions of influence within the department of health,” he said.

Northern Cape health MEC Maruping Lekwene (right) and provincial health department acting head Dion Theys. (Photo: NC Health / Twitter / Wikipedia)

Provincial EFF leader Aubrey Baartman says the party is not surprised by the arrests. “We have been expecting it, so it is highly welcomed. As the EFF, we are still expecting more arrests in the province, so we are urging all the corrupt officials to come clean.”

The Freedom Front Plus deputy chairperson in the province, Danie Coetzee, also welcomed the arrest. “The investigation has been ongoing for a while now, so we are glad.” He said that ultimately it is the most vulnerable people who suffer because of mismanagement.

According to Nehawu provincial secretary Moleme Moleme, the union asked the department several times to suspend Theys. “It has been our plea [to] the department since his first arrest that took place earlier this year. We have been saying that it cannot be correct that Dr Theys continues to hold his senior position as a provincial medical manager even after he has been implicated in tender corruption. Instead, we have noted that after his March arrest he was never held responsible for his actions but was rather given back his senior management position. All of us are public servants and we must be held accountable for our wrong actions. All corrupt officials must be suspended.”

Concerns over vacancies

In May 2021, Northern Cape Premier Dr Zamani Saul had to account to MPs in Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Public Service and Administration on the head of department vacancy in health and three other departments. He acknowledged to MPs that the province “could have done much better in filling the vacancies”. The province had advertised the positions in August 2020 already.

According to the Public Service Act, however, these vacant posts must be filled within six months and someone cannot be acting for more than a year.

Saul acknowledged that having people in an acting position is not ideal but the acting heads of department (Theys included) had the skills and competencies required for the job and that this in the interim “created and added value” to the departments. He undertook to submit a report at the end of this month (August) to the committee to show the progress they have made in filling the vacancies.

When some MPs raised concerns about the health department operating without a permanent head at such a crucial time, Saul said those “appointed in acting positions in the province were qualified for these positions and were quite seasoned bureaucrats who were really assisting the department to hold the fort”. According to him, there were no visible signs of instability and poor performance due to the people who were acting.

This was about two months after Theys’s first arrest.

Attempts to find out if the position has since been filled and what, if any, action was taken against Theys, sent Spotlight down a rabbit hole, with one official saying Theys is still the acting head of department, and opposition parties saying they understand he was redeployed to his former position of provincial medical manager. If this is the case, it is not clear when it happened. Saul also dodged this question in Parliament. Spotlight understands another head of department, Riaan Strydom, has been appointed, but on the department’s social media pages he is referred to as “acting HOD”. The last permanent head of the provincial health department was Theys’s predecessor, Dr Steven Jonkers, who is also no stranger to controversy. He was reportedly implicated in fraud and corruption at the Department of Transport, Safety and Liaison a few years ago.

Financial management transgressions flagged

Heads of department are the accounting officers responsible for the administration of the department. During Theys’s time in office the Auditor-General flagged various irregularities with PPE in her first and second special report on Covid-19 spending.

The report notes, among other things, that the provincial health department had deviated from the emergency procurement procedures for “one transaction to procure goods to the value of R8,04-million in the Northern Cape”. The Auditor-General could not find “any evidence that the deviations had been approved by the accounting officer”.

“Also in the Northern Cape, the accounting officer had signed off a generic deviation on 24 March 2020 that did not specify any time period and was not considered per specific transaction, as required. The deviation, therefore, did not justify the matter of emergency for the four suppliers to the value of R60,73-million,” the Auditor-General found.

It was found that the department had awarded a contract to a supplier who, among others, “was not a bona fide PPE supplier, and its CIPC (Companies and Intellectual Properties Commission) returns were not up to date. The award, the Auditor-General found, was granted to a supplier that was in the process of being deregistered with the CIPC. All of this is required by the Public Finance Management Act and Treasury regulations.

Another red flag raised by the Auditor-General was the poor storage of PPE in the Northern Cape and a few other provinces. The report found that the department had failed to ensure adequate quality of PPE upon receipt. This meant that some PPE items received did not meet the minimum required standards – putting healthcare workers at risk. Among the complaints some healthcare workers raised with the Auditor-General include “coveralls and overshoes [that] were made of poor-quality material as it fell apart when putting them on”; “some masks did not have nose bars and the ear loops detached easily”; and some isolation gowns/aprons were too short, tore easily or had a bad odour.”

The Auditor-General noted that the province subsequently undertook to establish a quality control committee to evaluate the quality of PPE before orders are placed and to create a formal PPE complaints process.

As accounting officer, Theys also undertook to train and “allocate staff with the requisite knowledge of stock management practices and skills to manage the PPE stock stored in the temporary bulk-storage facilities”. DM/MC

* This article was produced by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest.

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