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Special Investigating Unit’s Digital Vibes investigation: Suspension of top health officials imminent

Director-General of the National Department of Health Dr Sandile Buthelezi. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

Sources have told Maverick Citizen that the suspension of Department of Health Director-General, Dr Sandile Buthelezi, and long-time Deputy Director-General, Dr Anban Pillay, appears imminent as they face disciplinary inquiries sparked by the Special Investigating Unit’s inquiry into the Digital Vibes scandal. It is believed that other senior officials may also be suspended.

Pending suspensions could leave the national health department depleted of senior leaders amid one of the biggest medical programmes — the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out — in our history. Making matters worse, Maverick Citizen has learnt that the department’s chief financial officer, Ian van der Merwe, recently resigned after 10 years in the post. His resignation is not linked to any accusations of malfeasance and he is believed to have cooperated in assisting the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) with its investigation.

Maverick Citizen’s inquiries arose after an interview last week with the recently appointed Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla, in which he said that the department had “already been sent some letters [from the SIU] which we need to act upon”. 

‘We are in uncharted waters — but we will get out of it working together,’ says Health Minister Joe Phaahla

Phaahla said that “in the next few days and weeks there will unfortunately be some action and that will have some impact also on our capacity as a department”, adding that “when wrong things have happened and investigations have led to findings, then people have to be held answerable”.

However, Phaahla said it was regrettable because “it will have an impact on our capacity, because from what I have seen, a number of people will have to be on suspension, pending charges… if you are already working with a skeleton staff and four or five people have to go away for a month or so, it just means your management is thin. But it’s a consequence which must follow”.

Both Buthelezi and Pillay have denied any knowledge of pending disciplinary action against them, although Buthelezi admitted that notices of suspension would soon be issued to some staff in terms of the Labour Relations Act (LRA). 

Anatomy of a ‘rigged’ contract: Digital Vibes tender deeply flawed, unlawful and invalid, says SIU

However, Maverick Citizen has confirmed from a reliable source that the SIU has made several referrals for disciplinary action to the department (known as “referral letters”). In the case of the former acting DG (Dr Anban Pillay) and the DG (Dr Sandile Buthelezi), we understand referrals for disciplinary action were sent to the Presidency.

It is not known what action President Ramaphosa has taken or is planning. The SIU did not answer a request for comment. However, last night Tyrone Seale, spokesperson for the president, confirmed that “there was a referral letter from the SIU relating to the DG and that the President is attending to that”.

He said the president had received the report in July and was in the process of “informing persons mentioned in it”. 

SIU affidavit sheds light

The SIU’s investigation into the Digital Vibes affair, although handed to Ramaphosa more than a month ago, has still not been made public. This, we understand, is despite a Promotion of Access to Information request for the report having been made by the Democratic Alliance and possibly others.

Seale said the matter is expected to be raised in questions to the president in Parliament on Friday.

Although the report has not yet been published, the SIU’s founding affidavit in a case pending before the Special Tribunal seems to reveal many of their findings, including damning findings against former health minister Zweli Mkhize. 

The SIU’s application to the Special Tribunal, dated 29 July 2021, is deposed by Rajendra Chunilall, the SIU’s principal forensic investigator. It seeks a “declaration of invalidity” of the Digital Vibes contract and its complete setting aside. 

Following on this, it seeks the repayment of all monies by those who benefited from the unlawful contract up to an amount of R150-million, noting that of the total amount paid to Digital Vibes, “R90-million is spurious expenditure bearing no relation to bona fide disbursements”. This includes R1-million paid to the late Thandisizwe Diko’s Royal Bhaca Projects.

There are three particularly revealing aspects to the affidavit, which relies heavily on the evidence of a whistle-blower that is corroborated in numerous ways by the SIU’s own interviews and investigations. 

The first is that Zweli Mkhize is seen to have had a very direct hand in seeking the appointment of Tahera Mather as the person in charge of communications (initially to do with National Health Insurance and later Covid-19) almost from the first day he was in office. 

For example, the SIU’s affidavit contains extracts from an affidavit of the former director-general, Precious Matsoso, in which Mkhize is said to have repeatedly pressured the former DG to approve a contract to employ Mather, but where Matsoso resists, insisting on following proper procedures.

It notes that at a swearing-in event of the minister, the then DG was introduced to Naadhira Mitha as the minister’s personal assistant and Mather as the minister’s strategic communications adviser and, days later, told to “sort out contractual arrangements of NHI communication which would be handled by Ms Mather”. 

The SIU notes: “Ms Mather was from 30 May 2019, de facto already doing work for the NDOH and conveying instructions from the Minister to the DG as to proposed communications interventions for and on behalf of the NDOH.” It refers to the conduct of Mkhize as “improper… and at worst unlawful… as it constituted an interference by the Executive Authority in the affairs of the Administrative Authority of the NDOH”.

Mitha appears to have played some role in the day-to-day running of the Digital Vibes business after it secured the DoH contract. Scorpio established that she was listed as a contact person for the offices which Digital Vibes rented in Houghton, Johannesburg. The company rented the space for only a year and vacated the premises in December 2020.

Department of Health’s irregular R150m Digital Vibes deal: Daily Maverick’s investigative work so far in one bundle

Matsoso quietly resigned at the end of October 2019 after nearly 10 unblemished years as DG. At this point, Dr Anban Pillay, who has been a deputy director-general in the department since 2012, became acting DG, a position he held until 31 May 2020. 

During this period, the SIU’s affidavit suggests, Pillay became an active facilitator for the Digital Vibes contract — he appointed them “based on an arbitrary decision… a decision made even before Digital Vibes had submitted its quotation”. Thereafter, he approved more than R74-million in payments to Digital Vibes in a mere four months. 

The SIU states that in so doing, Pillay (who is the seventh respondent) “committed fraud and acted in contravention of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA)”, thereby also exposing himself to possible criminal charges. 

The SIU states that it has referred Pillay’s matter to the National Prosecuting Authority and that it is seeking to hold Pillay “liable for any loss or damages suffered by the NDOH as a result of his misconduct and/or negligence”.

Finally, the SIU cites the current director-general, Sandile Buthelezi, as the thirtieth respondent, in his capacity as representative of the National Department of Health. It notes that soon after his appointment, he “sent a letter to the CFO stating that all communications contracts would, with immediate effect, be managed by the office of the DG”. The CFO was also instructed to hand over all documentation relating to the Digital Vibes contract.

In the remainder of 2020, Buthelezi, who has described Mkhize as his personal mentor, authorised “in excess of R60-million” in further payments to Digital Vibes. This was despite the fact that on 24 June 2020, the National Treasury wrote to Buthelezi confirming an “approved deviation” of R25-million to Digital Vibes, noting that in the end, “NDOH paid an amount of approximately R99-million in excess of the purportedly approved deviation amount, which made a mockery of the purported approved SCM deviation”.

The SIU’s affidavit says it does not seek any relief against Buthelezi “other than the setting aside of the agreements or the purported agreement concluded by its officials”. 

Unusually, and perhaps as a harbinger of further findings still to be made by the SIU after the filing of the affidavit, the SIU adds that because “the rules of the Special Tribunal do not make provision for an organ of state that is a respondent to a review application to provide a record of the decision impugned in the review”, it is seeking a special order that “the NDOH… provide the record of the impugned decisions together with such reasons for the decisions as it is required or wishes to furnish”.

With pending disciplinary inquiries and the Special Tribunal hearing and NPA investigations all ongoing, it is clear that the Digital Vibes matter still has some way to run. Because of the role of the whistle-blower, the media and the SIU investigation, justice is nipping at the heels of many of those alleged to have looted the department.

But what our investigation also reveals is a critical government department that is, in many ways, in freefall and which will not have the capacity for the huge health challenges South Africa faces in months and years ahead. 

Millions of lives, and the constitutional right of everyone to have access to healthcare services, depend on an effective, capable, honest and adequately skilled national health department. To ensure this, it is clearly now in need of urgent remedial action. DM/MC

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All Comments 30

  • Hopefully this is the final nail in the coffin of the National Health Insurance scheme. Would have been another cash cow.
    Suspension should read arrest!!

    • Exactly. That word “suspension” ( home with full pay) is becoming a major irritant. Alongside “disciplinary action”. Both should as you say be replaced with ” Go straight to jail”.

    • I think the NHI was more of an ideological fantasy than a plan with practical merit. Therefore, unfortunately, the issue will probably be resurrected again at some point because Socialism doesn’t know how to do anything other than by superficial one-size-fits-all solutions (in order to be perceived as society’s messiah).

      I don’t understand why we can’t just regulate the healthcare industry like we do with the food industry. The US and the UK are prime examples of how both policy extremes are fatally flawed. Without getting too far off topic here, I would love to see an article or two by DM exploring healthcare reform options of a more strategic nature that are not simply pros and cons of existing models.

      • On certain topics, especially when it comes to activism and certain socialism topics, DM has a tough time giving balanced views. They tend to ignore inconvenient arguments occasionally when it doesn’t suit their narrative.

  • So the usual deny, deny, deny was a total lie. Gauteng Department of Health assassination, PPE scandals and dismal publicity of vaccine truth in the middle of the Country’s biggest medical disaster due to this expose shows the depth to where we have sunk. The rot is deep.

  • Surely the NPA can read these two affidavits and prepare criminal charges against this bunch of miscreants? With accused No 1 being the despicable Mkhize. Do your job Shamila Batohi.

  • This whole saga is disgusting and ridicules any confidence anyone anywhere might once have placed in the SA health system, Zweli, Buthelezi and the whole shambles. You deserve everything that’s coming to you. You have betrayed all trust. Our hope is that if the courts manage not to be swayed by clever lawyers and/ or kickbacks that you all go to prison for a very, very, long time without any hope of parole.

  • As usual, seemingly disgraceful conduct by top officials, made even worse that this is to do with health matters in the middle of a pandemic. Is there no end to this parade of compromised people appointed by the ANC?

    • The number of corrupt, dishonest and morally depraved individuals in various positions across government is indeed mind boggling. It seems that the strength of character required to refrain from gorging at the trough when everyone else is face deep in it is absent from the moral fibre of so many.

    • I can only assume that over the past 27 years any would-be honest civil servants have been hounded out of their positions, or they have been forced to turn a blind eye when necessary to preserve their source of income, and, very disturbingly, their lives.

      My further assumption is that these men and women of integrity are now employed in the private sector and they stay there under the radar, removing themselves from political activity altogether, or they have left South Africa.

      There is no question that we are desperately in need of honest men and women to be deployed in civil service.

      As long as the president continues with his “ANC first, SA second” stance – flouting his presidential oath in the process – and deploying only party-loyal cadres, it will not happen.

      What is mind-boggling to me, is the notion that this failure on Ramaphosa’s part should be ignored in the interest of “not undermining” him, because, hey, at least corruption is being exposed. In my view, unless we can hold the president to his oath, we are simply setting the scene for the next wave of criminals to move in and get their chance to eat.

      At best, we will be tied up, like so many other developing countries, in one anti-corruption effort following the next, which we cannot afford. Much more likely, in my opinion, we will simply sink into the abyss of a failed state with all the obvious consequences.

      After this we will be heading to the era in which it will be borrowed money that will be stolen.

        • Glyn .. is it not time for you to return to reality for a change …and stop this ANC-like phantasy? Mark is mature enough to make up his own mind about the options!

        • Glyn, we are sick and tired of your DA campaigning! DM readers have brains and are fully capable of making their own informed choices. Go and campaign in an ANC stronghold seeing as yr such an eager beaver. Yr becoming a troll!

  • Just do it!
    I’m a little taken aback to see that FNB, Sanlam( Glacier Financial Solutions) and Sygnia are respondents. How long for and how much did these entities know or were they just facilitators of the stolen funds?

    • Also interesting to see the AFRO/INDIAN connection again. Who is the cart and who is the horse? The Zupta regime seemed to spawn a lot of copycats! Just my opinion.

      • Maybe you forgot to add the “WHITE” connection …. such as BOSASA ? When will we learn to stop scapegoating – to make ‘ourselves’ feel better ?

  • Why should the NDOH be in free fall? Surely there must be some capable people of integrity in SA who could be employed in place of the crooks?

    • Agreed, someone like the DDG in charge of vaccinations is very capable and there must be more. They’re just not politically acceptable.

    • Agreed. I would like to see a binding mechanism that connects their suspension pay to the verdict so that if they are found innocent they keep their pay, but if guilty they must immediately pay back every cent for the period of suspension with automatic contempt of court jailtime if they fail to do so.

  • The concluding words ” …. in need of urgent remedial action.” … is an understatement ! It should read …. urgent surgical action. The rot has gone too far ! As for the platitude and insulting words below the picture of Phaahla about “getting out of it WORKING TOGETHER” – spare us the election innuendo please … while continuing with your ‘cadre’ deployment ! You are less than useless in solving this disaster of your own making.

    • Agreed.

      It is individuals who benefit from corruption. But it is expected of the collective to solve the inevitable resulting mess and pay for it.

      In the ANC corruption is privatised, but guilt is nationalised. Put that on your election posters, please!

  • Suspension on full pay is not a punishment. It is a paid holiday. Especially if the criminals are just going to be reinstated again later. Look at Cyril’s communication crook. Back inthe job with a “warning”. F-all happened to her. She is a criminal. she should be in jail.

    Arrests and orange overalls is what we want.

  • If my memory serves me correctly, the arrogant Pillay was also involved in ordering the MRC to act against the respected Prof Glenda Gray.