Digital Vibes: Zweli Mkhize’s pal splurged Covid funds on Gucci gear, Smeg appliances and monthslong holiday
Shopping sprees for luxury goods, an overseas jaunt, expensive home upgrades and other personal expenses. This is how former health minister Zweli Mkhize’s close associate blew at least R1m of the money meant for vital Covid-19 communications.
On the day that Tahera Mather splurged R90,400 at a Gucci outlet in Sandton with a single swipe of Digital Vibes’ bank card, her attention should have been elsewhere.
The previous day, 12 October 2020, South Africa’s then health minister had warned in a press briefing that the country was heading for a second wave of Covid-19 infections.
“Covid-19 is still with us, especially if we start thinking that we should be complacent and forget about masks and social distancing,” said Zweli Mkhize.
As the de facto boss of Digital Vibes, long-time Mkhize associate Tahera Mather possessed the tools and resources to curb any such complacency.
After all, the firm had received R150-million from the Department of Health (DoH) to run communications campaigns for the pending National Health Insurance (NHI) and, later, for Covid-19.
However, at the crucial moment when all hands were needed on deck to battle the pandemic, Mather was seemingly more concerned with splurging the firm’s earnings from the health department on luxury goods.
Scorpio’s latest investigation reveals how Mather utilised funds from Digital Vibes’ main bank account for her personal benefit.
This includes tens of thousands of rands spent on a monthslong holiday in Turkey, while South Africa was battling through one of the pandemic’s most trying periods.
The bulk of the money Digital Vibes received from the DoH should have been spent on goods and services for the department’s Covid-19 communications efforts.
However, our investigation has shown that Digital Vibes reserved only a comparatively small portion of its DoH “loot” for legitimate expenses related to the firm’s mandate.
Instead, roughly R100-million was funnelled to a range of implicated parties in an alleged looting spree that almost beggars belief.
Companies and accounts controlled by Mather and her immediate family pocketed nearly R30-million.
Mkhize’s former PA, Naadhira Mitha, along with other suspicious third parties, also received a large chunk of the money, while payments from the company’s account benefited Mkhize and his son, Dedani, and the latter’s wife, Sthoko.
The payments identified in this piece were made from Digital Vibes’ main bank account and are in addition to the nearly R100-million transferred to Mather’s company and to the other parties’ accounts.
In other words, Mather not only oversaw the transfer of the lion’s share of the contract’s value to her own entity and to the other actors involved in the saga, she also spent some of the remaining funds for her personal benefit.
Mather has admitted that she had been responsible for some of the expenditure we’ve uncovered.
The R150-million Digital Vibes received from the DoH was paid in 19 tranches between late January 2020 and early February 2021.
Using money Digital Vibes received from the DoH, Mather:
- Spent at least R170,000 at upmarket fashion stores, restaurants and beauty spas;
- Diverted nearly R530,000 towards renovating her house in Blythedale on KwaZulu-Natal’s North Coast; and
- Splurged nearly R200,000 during a two-month stay in Turkey.
Some of the money also went towards covering the municipal bills for Mather’s house and to pay the private security firm looking after the property.
“In response to your queries, I was responsible for all the payments and purchases except for G4S [the security firm] and KwaDukuza [the municipal bills],” Mather told us.
She said Digital Vibes’ director, Radha Hariram, settled those expenses from the company’s account.
Hariram did not respond to queries.
Our investigation found that Mather spent the entire months of December 2020 and January 2021 in Turkey, where she used Digital Vibes’ bank card for luxury accommodation, jewellery, clothes and other expenses.
Apart from the wastage of taxpayers’ money, Mather’s trip abroad will no doubt raise a few eyebrows because of its timing.
During the months in which South Africans were battling through a second wave of Covid-19 infections, Mather, the true directing hand behind the company that had been paid to help combat the pandemic, was busy spending some of this money in a country 8,000km away.
The flagrant abuse of the money Digital Vibes had received from the DoH began months before Mather’s trip to Turkey.
Our analysis reveals that Mather began utilising the company’s funds for personal expenses in early 2020, shortly after it had received its first payments from the DoH.
Smeg it up
Transactions that followed payments to Digital Vibes from the DoH in early 2020 strongly suggest that Mather – and whoever else may have had access to the bank card – from the outset viewed the company’s account as a personal piggy bank.
Digital Vibes received its first payment, an amount of R7.4-million, on 29 January 2020. The second payment, in a series of 19 transfers, valued at R1.8-million, reflected in the company’s bank account two days later.
The shopping spree formally kicked off on 5 February 2020, when someone swiped Digital Vibes’ card at a Pick n Pay store in Stanger (KwaDukuza), Mather and Hariram’s hometown.
During the lifetime of the DoH contract, some R28,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent at grocery stores alone.
The KwaDukuza municipality received some R42,000 from the Digital Vibes account for Mather’s municipal bills. A further R6,800 was used to settle the bills from her private security provider.
But these were relatively small expenses, at least compared to the nearly R530,000 Mather used for renovations at her house in Blythedale.
The first payment from Digital Vibes’ account that we could link to the home upgrades was made in late February 2020.
Throughout the rest of the year, Mather routinely paid contractors from Digital Vibes’ account for all manner of work relating to the project, including flooring contractors, electricians, architects and landscape designers.
In total, she diverted about R527,000 from Digital Vibes’ account to renovate her house, according to our analysis.
This includes payments totalling nearly R193,000 for top-of-the-range kitchen appliances. (See graphic)
The Smeg ovens, coffee machines and other appliances were purchased at the start of February 2021, mere weeks before Scorpio first exposed the Digital Vibes contract.
After the DoH effectively changed Digital Vibes’ mandate to include Covid-19 communications, the firm started bagging ever-larger payments from the department.
This appeared to have unleashed a sense of profligacy in Mather, as illustrated by her purchases at luxury clothing stores, beauty spas and other such businesses.
Between 11 and 15 May 2020, the DoH settled a series of Digital Vibes invoices worth nearly R28-million for billings related to the pandemic.
A few days after the last of these payments, Mather swiped the Digital Vibes bank card at a Nike store in Sandton, draining more than R3,000 from the account. A few weeks later, she spent about R35,000 at Sandton’s iStore.
But this was just the start of the extravagance.
From September to early November 2020, a period that saw Digital Vibes pocket a further R35.5-million in Covid-19 payments, Mather went wild with the company’s card.
Large purchases at a variety of fashion stores and other shops, mostly at Sandton City and the Hyde Park shopping centre in Johannesburg and at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, drained altogether R170,000 from the account.
This included the single card swipe for R90,400 at Sandton City’s Gucci store, as mentioned at the start of this article.
Mather also splurged tens of thousands of rands at Diesel, Christian Dior and Tiger of Sweden stores; at a wellness spa in Cape Town; on luxury cosmetics; and at an upmarket luggage vendor.
Missing in action
A surge in Covid-19 cases during November 2020 all but confirmed that South Africa would experience a second wave of infections.
“We need to intensify communication, to make people understand that if they do not adhere to the [Covid-19] measures the numbers will rise,” a stern-faced Zweli Mkhize said at a media briefing on 27 November.
But Tahera Mather, the person who controlled the funds Digital Vibes had received for Covid-19 communications, had already left the country.
The dates for her departing and return flights are unclear, but Digital Vibes’ bank records give us a pretty firm idea of her movements in Turkey and the length of her stay.
On 23 November, five days before Mkhize’s address, Mather made her first cash withdrawal from a bank in Turkey, taking the equivalent of about R4,300 in Turkish lira.
And on 27 November, the day Mkhize issued his warning, Mather withdrew a further R4,000 from an ATM.
In other words, at precisely the moment in which Mkhize was calling for better communications efforts to help slow down infections, Mather was enjoying a trip abroad, where she splurged the very funds Digital Vibes had received from the DoH for Covid-19 awareness.
Between 23 November 2020 and 1 February 2021, while in Turkey, Mather drained more than R190,000 from the Digital Vibes account.
This includes roughly R97,000 in cash withdrawn from ATMs and bank tellers.
The rest of the money went towards accommodation, jewellery, and to clothing and textile stores.
Mather’s son, Wasim, was also in Turkey during the same timeframe.
“I don’t want to comment on anything but my son did not use any company card in Turkey. I had the card for the duration of my trip. You can check out my dates of travel and use of the card,” Mather stated in May, after we had quizzed her on a range of issues relating to Digital Vibes.
Wasim may not have touched the company’s bank card, but, while in Turkey, he certainly enjoyed some of the deal’s ill-gotten fruits.
On 1 December 2020, Wasim posted a picture of himself on Facebook holding an expensive-looking camera and lens.
He was in Turkey’s Kayseri province, according to the caption of another picture in his feed.
The Nikon D500 camera and lens from the same manufacturer were bought at a South African photography outlet and cost altogether R87,450.
Scorpio established that Digital Vibes paid for the items in July 2020, about a month after the firm had received a R6.7-million payment from the DoH.
We also obtained an invoice for the items bearing Wasim’s name.
Mather stated that her son was never aware that the camera and lens had been purchased by Digital Vibes.
The Special Investigating Unit (SIU), through legal proceedings at the Special Tribunal, is currently trying to claw back some of the Digital Vibes “loot” from Mather and others accused of benefiting from the allegedly corrupt deal.
It remains to be seen whether the graft-buster will retrieve every last rand of taxpayers’ money wasted on Gucci products and other indulgences. DM