Scorpio

SCORPIO

Digital Vibes: Zweli Mkhize’s pal splurged Covid funds on Gucci gear, Smeg appliances and monthslong holiday

Illustrative image | Sources: Former Health Minister Zweli Mkhize. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart) | Tahera Mather. (Photo: Facebook) | Adobe Stock | Rawpixel | pngtree

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.

Tahera Mather and Zweli Mkhize in 2017. (Photo: Supplied)

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.

Tahera Mather’s house in Blythedale on KwaZulu-Natal’s north coast. (Photo: Pieter-Louis Myburgh)

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.

Gucci girl

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.

A Tiger of Sweden store at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Mather spent thousands of rands of Digital Vibes’ money at a Tiger of Sweden outlet in Sandton, Johannesburg. (Photo: Pieter-Louis Myburgh)

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.

Wasim Mather with his new camera gear, courtesy of the Digital Vibes contract. (Photo: Facebook)

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

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All Comments 64

  • Nice to see the family were looked after.
    The family that loots together, stays together
    Amazes me, SARS could be nailing all these guys on no declaration of income
    I claim some fuel, and I need a log book etc
    These guys push millions through of personal expenditure and where is SARS on the audit trail ?

  • It’s not even in place yet the NHI is already proving a conduit to fatten the corrupt politician’s wallets and their cronies, I see why they are pushing for it so much.

  • What did Digital Vibes undertake to do, and actually achieve, for the R150 million they were paid? Did their efforts bear any fruit?
    This article is nothing more than a record of expenditure by those in receipt of funds. The nature and record of payment may seem profligate, but it has no relevance to the case, it is pure character assassination. Profligate spending is no crime?

      • I feel the same as Andrew Blaine. Mostly Character assassination. People can spend their money on whatever they want, thats why its for sale. However, what were the real returns/spending and how was it possibly justified? The fact there was no tender process (although they can be sketchy…) is plain wrong, as is the fact that people in government seem to have no idea about real world costs and the fact they are spending our money and never getting value for it, either wilfully or ignorantly.

        • You and Andrew are viewing this article simplistically. They contract was unlawful and designed to steal from the fiscus aided and abetted by the good Doc, by omission or intent. A legitimate company does not have its office bearers gleefully spending chunks of cash straight out of the companies business account on personal items, way in excess of what would be considered normal remuneration. These crooks have no accounting records and don’t pay tax. Same as Hamilton Ndlovu and the SAPS PPE cadre crook. These criminals deserve all the exposure they get.

          • Exactly! Don’t know how a digital communications company can justify its accounts being used to purchase Gucci and expensive appliances…

    • As I understand it, there was no need to employ Digital Vibes at all as the Department of Health was supposed to have the capacity to carry out the communication strategy in-house.

  • Yet not a single arrest and, as far as one can tell, no charges laid against anyone while SARS remains silent while spending an inordinate amount of time harassing taxpayers (i.e. people who have paid their taxes).

      • How right you are Charles. CR, with his lame empty promises, has no backbone…if only the millions of ANC supporters, mostly totally uneducated and ignorant, could see that, Then again, there is nobody, not a single senior politician, that has any integrity whatsoever. Heaven help us, as the country continue the downward spiral

  • Thank you DM and Scorpio. It’s great to have the truth uncovered but it makes us feel like shit to know the Mkhize, Mather and co could let us down so badly and with no shame. He’s still drawing his salary unlike those who lost their livelihood during COVID, its rules and excessive demands on the public purse. Shame on them all but I doubt there is even a morsel of it.

  • Unfortunate that Jane Crankshaft conflates issues by labelling the Digital Vibes scandal as “AfroIndian” – the issue is corruption and theft! Gavin Watson, Mckinsey SAP, Etc, had very light skin tones….its very primitive in this day and age to classify ethnic linkages to integrity.

      • I choose not to bury my head in the sand. I want to understand who is using who in State Capture. These names are all implicated : The 3 brothers Shaick, The 3 brothers Gupta, Iqbal Surve,Vish Naidoo, Ebrahim Patel, Iqbal Sharma, Saleem Essa, Dinesh Patel, Anoj Singh, Karnal Vasram, Teheran Mather, Naadhira Mitha, Radha Hariram….the list goes on! Am I right? Or am I paranoid in thinking there is an Afro/Indian partnership at work? I just think it’s not a co incidence that such a large segment of a minority group are implicated in one of the biggest stories of corruption in our country’s history. Who is using who here? Either way it’s the exhausted taxpayer who is paying the price and I for one want it to stop. Knowledge is power – find out what is driving this cosy partnership and stop it before its too late to step back from the edge. I care that there is a future for South Africa, for my kids and Grand kids….all of whom live and work here, contributing to the tax base. I care for the contribution my family has made over the last 300 years. I don’t want to move to wet England, or boring Australia, or the Disunited States of America. I want all South Africans to thrive and be happy in this country – but not at the expense of someone else and certainly not have some “Johnny Come latelies” arrive to steal it from the hardworking South Africans who have made tax and rate contributions for generations and kept the lights on here.

  • These thieves need to return the money! And then they need to be sentenced to a good prison term each. They need to pay the price for their shocking actions.

  • And to date, despite SIU report handed to Ramapromisa mid July, NOTHING has happened. It is sickening and disheartening to watch theft & corruption on this scale & apart from endless talk & promises, the President does NOTHING other than protect & support his thieving buddies.

  • As asked before, I would love to see the actual invoices DV sent to the DOH. What did the invoices say in terms of what work was done for the amount claimed. I think I calculated before what the per hour rate would have needed to be to make up the R150million over that period of time, can not remember to amount anymore but it was staggering. Including some visuals of the invoices would be very insightfull.

  • It would be great to see the communication products developed by Digital Vibes as part of this contract, its (un-inflated) cost and some form of impact assessment/reach/behavioural change it led to. I think very successful and legitimate communications agencies in South Africa would have a field day pulling it apart.

  • Where is SARS? All the money simply being “donated” from one entity (or person) to another must surely either result in donations tax, or alternatively, if designed to disguise its origins, money laundering? Makes a mockery of FICA and tax compliance.

    • FICA? What a joke. That only applies to legit taxpayers like us suckers. They’re above that. Maybe Kieswetter and Co should stop wasting time on investigating the actual taxpayers and go after the real dodgers. I’d love to see what their VAT returns look like.

  • First comes the DM journalists.

    Then (hopefully) SARS raises an eyebrow and a query having glanced at the parties’ tax returns and the DM article.

    Maybe one day possibly there might be a criminal charge.

    • Yip, we all look to SARS to sort these things out as if we didn’t even have a police service. Well we might as well not for all they do but then the ANC government does need someone to keep people in line during curfew.

  • Cyril has not fired him, Mkhize yet. The Covid vaccination publicity has suffered tremendously with millions not persuaded to vaccinate and the rural districts still listening to uninformed tribal elders, sangomas, small church pastors et al. That is the effect of this corruption, South Africa still on UK red list, poor recording and publicising of all covid and vaccination figures for example. This seems to be the typical spending pattern seen by the corruptees, oversees holidays, visits to top end stores, though toned down a bit with no Aston Martin or Ferrari’s.

  • Claw back the money: these people should be left destitute as an example to others. And they should be convicted, not only of the theft but also criminal negligence if even one death resulted from these decisions. If money for PPE was diverted to this criminal enterprise, a case could be argued, should be argued. White collar crime does kill people.

  • Where is SARS you ask? Well, SARS is at this moment busy auditing a family member of mine who earned a pittance in 2019 and 2020 and is currently unemployed.

  • The thing that always stands out, when we read these tales of disgusting theft, is what the monies are spent on- it would be more palatable if they went towards tuition fees , medical expenses etc, but no, they are spent on designer outfits, fancy motor vehicles, luxury holidays, all of which goes to show the type of mindset these criminals have. And if the police services can’t apprehend them and sentence them, then civil prosecutions should , and hopefully bankrupt them.So ironic too , that it is always the detested European bling that the comrades seem to crave so much!

  • Is it not possible to get a tax revolt going? Im happy to pay tax, as long as it is not stolen, as it has been for so many years! I think CR is just doing a tiny bit in the NPA to keep us tax payers happy while they(ANC), steal more than we can see. If Karpower does go through you can be absolutely sure that CR has let it, and they are going even bigger on state capture! As the ship sinks they will take as much as their greedy paws can grab. The ANC has broken this country! So sad!

    • I have to agree with you. The powerships tender could well be the tender that finally sinks this country and destroys any hope that the taxpayer can survive this onslaught of theft and corruption.

  • Life truths: One person may wear off-the-peg clothes and still look elegant, and another person may wear very expensive clothes and still look like a badly tied sack of potatoes. (Well done newshound Myburgh. Keep these names in the frame for as long as it takes).

  • Tahera, why did your parents not condomise !! and Wasim, the same goes for you…!!
    So proud of your achievements, your grandparents must be brimming with pride. And a guaranteed ANC seat somewhere so you can “a luta continua ” – do you pay school fees with this POCA funding. Any school with integrity would/should decline your payments as suspicious.

  • I really hope that this matter is used to set a very public example of what the consequences ought to be for anyone engaging in tender corruption. Every possible criminal and civil recourse available to the Government needs to be pursued. From what has been reported, it seems that a litany of criminal offences have been committed: corruption, fraud, contraventions of the Companies Act, PFMA, POCA and PRECCA and no doubt a multitude of tax offences have been committed along the way. Those implicated or involved should have to deal with every consequence that, quite frankly, they have brought upon themselves. Regarding the views expressed in the comments that this article is nothing more than character-assassination of people who are entitled to spend money as they please, character-assassination is defined as ‘the malicious and unjustified harming of a person’s good reputation.’ Publicising details of how someone spent illegally obtained money is neither malicious nor unjustified. As far as repetitional damage is concerned, everyone involved in this needs to accept sole responsibility for that I am afraid.

  • Disgusting. The brazen, conspicuous consumption … the holiday during lockdown … the sheer arrogance! Mather must be arrested and tried.

  • I thought that this was theft? When will the criminal charges commence?

    We still have to see any orange outfits for these disgusting people w1ho only think of themselves!!

  • cr is working on an oscar, don’t you get it yet. he can’t understand why it’s taking so long. he gets up every morning and reads the comments and laughs his off. stupid people and he is correct. we carry on posting comments that mean to the thieves. and talking about thieves why is our big business so quiet? why are they not being investigated by the press to give the public confirmation they are not the true puppet masters. stop fighting amongst ourselves and work out how to stop this government from destroying SA

    • You are so right. Where is biz SA? Personal tax provides the largest section of tax income in this country – more than Corporate tax and VAT..perhaps biz SA is trying to remain under the radar so as not to change this ratio? How disappointing CR has turned out to be – I even considered voting for him at one stage. This Digital Vibes episode has changed that sentiment…it’s only R150m, smallfry when you consider the Billions that have been stolen, but the fact it has happened under his watch has been the biggest shock for me. So very disappointing….