South Africa

DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

Director-General Sandile Buthelezi suspended over his role in Digital Vibes scandal

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

Department of Health Director-General Dr Sandile Buthelezi, accused of approving over R60m in payments to Digital Vibes, has been suspended as the scandal continues to rock the government. However, Deputy DG Dr Anban Pillay, also implicated, still has a job.

Department of Health Director-General (DG) Dr Sandile Buthelezi has officially been suspended pending a disciplinary inquiry into his role in the R150-million irregularly paid to Digital Vibes. Deputy Director-General Dr Nicholas Crisp was appointed acting DG in September while Buthelezi took leave amidst speculation on his pending suspension.

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

Buthelezi’s suspension follows the resignation of former health minister Zweli Mkhize in August after Daily Maverick revealed that Digital Vibes, run by Mkhize’s close associates, received R150-million from the health department for grossly inflated communications services through an allegedly unlawful contract.

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

“The Ministry of Health confirms that Director-General: Health, Dr Sandile Buthelezi, has been placed on precautionary suspension until he appears before a disciplinary hearing regarding his role in the Digital Vibes saga,” said health ministry spokesperson Foster Mohale in a statement on Sunday.

“Dr Nicholas Crisp, Deputy Director General responsible for National Health Insurance, will continue to act until the hearing process has been concluded.”

Digital Vibes was appointed in November 2019 to manage a National Health Insurance (NHI) communications campaign. According to the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) that process was “deeply flawed, unlawful and invalid”. The scope of the contract then expanded to include communication around Covid-19.

Buthelezi, who started as health DG in June 2020, wasn’t involved in awarding Digital Vibes its initial contract or the tens of millions the company was paid during the first half of 2020. According to court papers filed by the SIU, Buthelezi approved more than R60-million in payments to the company, despite misgivings from the National Treasury.

In its affidavit to the Special Tribunal, the SIU said it was not seeking specific relief from the DG, “other than the setting aside of the agreements or the purported agreement concluded by its officials”.

Mohale told TimesLIVE that the SIU questioned what Buthelezi, as the accounting officer, did about the unlawful contract after he was appointed.

Dr Anban Pillay. (Photo: Gallo Images / Financial Mail / Russell Roberts)

While Health Minister Joe Phaahla, appointed after Mkhize’s resignation, has acted against Buthelezi, he’s yet to suspend Deputy Director-General Dr Anban Pillay, who is implicated in the Digital Vibes scandal on multiple fronts.

The SIU found that the Department of Health appeared to tailor the NHI tender to suit Digital Vibes and said members of the tender evaluation committee (TEC) “did not evaluate and score the bid proposals fairly and consistently”.

Pillay was acting DG when the contract was awarded and was a member of the TEC. He has denied any wrongdoing. In its court application, the SIU said Pillay appointed Digital Vibes “based on an arbitrary decision… a decision made even before Digital Vibes had submitted its quotation”.

As acting DG, Pillay authorised R74-million in payments to Digital Vibes in four months. The SIU claimed he committed fraud, violated the Public Finance Management Act and exposed himself to criminal charges.

Speaking on behalf of the health ministry, Mohale told Daily Maverick Pillay had not been suspended. Pillay has denied all claims of wrongdoing.

While the minister and authorities act against those implicated in the scandal, there’s a risk of creating a vacuum in leadership at the department of health as it continues to lead South Africa’s battle against Covid-19.

Minister Phaahla told Daily Maverick in August that there would “unfortunately be some action” against officials in the coming days and weeks.

“When wrong things have happened and investigations have led to findings, then people have to be held answerable,” said Phaahla, before noting the challenges that come with holding staff accountable.

“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.”

Crisp, who is likely to act as the department of health DG until Buthelezi’s disciplinary inquiry is finalised, has led South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccination drive and is regarded as an experienced and highly respected leader in the health sector. DM

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All Comments 21

  • Accolades to all responsible that there are “experienced and highly respected leader”(s) in place while the rot is cleaned up. The ANC must be half accountable from CR to the dumbed down electorate that continues to support them.

  • Viva, ANC, Viva! Small wonder SA’s vac program is so pathetically ineffective, with the ruling party constantly looking for ways to rip off the taxpayer and demotivate the health worker.

  • Once all the dust settles and the rubbish in the Department of Health has been swept away, I wonder if the finding will be that Zweli Mkhize was the victim of the actions of his advisors. If that happens will we congratulate him for acting as no other ANC minister has?

  • This is scandalous. These thieves get “suspended” on full pay, the case takes for ever to get to court, Zuma delaying tactics roll and eventually nothing happens! CR has sat on the SIU report since early July; Mkhize will not be charged EVER because of the “ANC KZN Zulu factions” stranglehold! SA crumbles as the rot eats away relentlessly.

  • I still ask the question “who is using who” in tender fraud and State capture. Anban
    Pillay is now yet another addition to the list of Afro/Indian corrupt collusion.

    • cANCer and the enablers are so koeksistered together they are like a million knots in a ball of string. This goes right through cANCer to the very bottom. It is too far gone for correction. Stare into the PIT, or if you can, emigrate.

  • I seem to remember a disciplinary hearing of sorts finding Mkhize not guilty of corruption but guilty of ignorance ? The same will happen to this chap unless the DM get involved.

  • How much fraud would be sitting in the DoH drugs and supplies tenders?

    I could deal with the problem of young graduates not getting jobs quite easily. Give me access to all government spend, ten young data engineers, five law students, five accounting graduates, ten public administration graduates and a contract that pays us 5% of the fraud we recover.

  • Just another song in the hymnbook of cr and his anc cadre deployment failures. History also tells us that cadres that get suspended continue to get paid by the taxpayer for months and even years. Eventually their ‘sins’ are forgotten and then they get re-deployed at higher salaries to another place in the anc government. Not one has actually ended up in jail and complete a deserving term.

  • High time suspensions are with limitations. Immediate suspension on ¾ pay for 3 months, ½pay for a further 3 months before a final 3 months on ¼ pay. If they are totally exonerated they can claim ¾pay for the full period with a maximum of 1 year.

  • Is there a register held by formal media as to who has been implicated in the Digital Vibes saga ( and others) as not one person has been formally charged. We need to keep pressure on all these criminals & legal system otherwise they will all simply retire in spectacular wealth.