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Minister of Health apologises for Digital Vibes scandal and announces suspension of Anban Pillay and other senior officials

Left, Dr Anban Pillay. (Photo by Gallo Images/ Financial Mail/ Russell Roberts) Middle, Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla (Photo by Gallo Images/Sydney Seshibedi) and Popo Maja. (Photo: Supplied)

Six health department officials, including a deputy-director Dr Anban Pillay and senior communicator Popo Maja, have been placed on precautionary suspension as the Department of Health prepares disciplinary charges against them arising from the irregular awarding of the Digital Vibes contract.

The Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla has announced the precautionary suspensions of Anban Pillay and Popo Maja as he apologised to the nation for the Digital Vibes scandal — but also stressed that he was never consulted on the appointment of the company even though he was the deputy minister at the time.

“We would like to tender our unreserved apology to all South Africans for this unfortunate saga, and we would like to assure the public that we are going to thoroughly and decisively act to ensure nothing is swept under the carpet. We acknowledge the impact of this on the image of the department and public health system to provide quality health care services,” Phaahla said.

The health department’s director-general, Dr Sandile Buthelezi, was suspended last week by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Apart from Pillay and Maja, other health department officials, both current and former, that have been placed on precautionary suspension include Patricia Ngobese, Shireen Pardesi, Sifiso Dlamini and Mxolisi Zondi.

Other government officials implicated in the report are former health department CFO — currently employed by the Government Printing Works — Ian van der Merwe, Senzeni Ngubane from GCIS and Reginald Ngcobo. Phaahla said Department of Health Acting Director-General Dr Nicholas Crisp will be writing to these departments to advise them of the course of action that the department is taking. 

The suspensions follow the publication of the Special Investigations Unit’s (SIU) findings into the irregular award of a R150-million government contract to Digital Vibes, a company headed by a close associate of then-Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize — Tahera Mather — for communication services relating to Covid-19. 

“We have noted the serious allegations against a number of departmental senior officials, notably the Deputy Director-General responsible for Health Regulations and Compliance, Dr Anban Pillay, who was the acting Director-General at the time the Digital Vibes contract was awarded,” Phaahla said.

“The Department has completed the review of both the Ngubane report and the SIU documentation that was provided earlier regarding the possible misconduct by nine officials. It is also important to indicate that, three out of nine officials mentioned in the report, are not staff members or employees of the Department of Health. These three officials are employed by other government departments, and their DGs have already been informed of the Department of Health disciplinary process as part of consequence management. This simply means that the National Department of Health has been able to deal directly with the disciplinary process of six officials implicated in this investigation report. 

“We are anxious to conclude the disciplinary process as a matter of urgency to bring these matters to closure in order to dedicate our time, energy and resources on the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic through the vaccination roll-out programme so that we can reach as many people as possible to achieve our goal of saving lives.

“By the close of business today, all affected six officials in the Department of Health would be served with suspension letters pending the completion of disciplinary hearing process and formalisation of charges. The outstanding disciplinary investigations will require the investigators communicating with the SIU and with a procurement specialist,” Phaahla added.  

The number of suspended National Health Department officials is therefore now seven, including the Director-General, Dr Sandile Buthelezi, who is already on precautionary suspension.

Phaahla said the Crisp, has written to the directors-general of the Government Communication and Information Systems and the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development together with the CEO of the Government Printing Works, where the other three officials mentioned in the SIU report, are working, to inform them of the actions taken by the Department of Health.

“The intention was to explain to them the Department’s course of action and to offer them an opportunity to be part of the same investigation and disciplinary process.

“This report shows that indeed whistle-blowing is one of the effective mechanisms in the fight against fraud and corrupt activities, and it plays a role in encouraging accountability, transparency and high standards of governance in both the private sector and public institutions. This blowing of the whistle was taken seriously within the department, and by other institutions, and this stand taken by an individual, and by subsequent witnesses, has brought us to where we are today.

“We fully understand the public concerns and interest in this matter because it involves allegations of misappropriation of public funds in the middle of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, which has so far cost the country substantial unbudgeted funds, as well as people’s lives and livelihoods. Thus, we are committed to study the report’s findings and recommendations fully, and act on the outcomes of the formal disciplinary processes without fear, favour and prejudice. 

“We are also committed to clean governance, and despite how uncomfortable the report may appear, it will help us tighten controls and ethical practice. We take seriously the evidence gathered by the SIU and have noted the view that there may be scope for criminal charges, though we are also mindful that further investigation needs to unfold before persons are declared guilty by our courts. 

“This is part of the rule of law. The SIU findings will guide us in looking into the alleged conduct of officials named in the report, and assessing what disciplinary, corrective and preventive interventions are required. We would like South Africans to have confidence in our public health system and in the integrity of the hundreds of thousands of officials in our department and the broader system. 

“We will address matters of integrity and of consequence management concurrently and will make our decisions known as we go along. We will do so within the framework of the law, the Public Service Code of Ethics and code on disciplinary action, and within the context of natural justice. 

“Clearly something went wrong,” Phaahla said. He said he was not consulted on the Digital Vibes contract. 

“I had no role in the appointment of the company.”

He said there was no evidence that he had been consulted about the move. 

Phaahla, however, defended the move to outsource some of the department’s communication functions, saying that they needed the extra capacity.

Crisp said officials will be suspended on full pay as they have not been charged yet. He confirmed that the officials would all have left their offices by this afternoon. DM/MC

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All Comments 15

  • Here’s my apology: Sorry for not paying my taxes. Tell me, can I expect the same treatment Mr Mkize got? I’ll take the praise for paying them in the past thank you, and for the ‘unnfortunate’ affair of not paying them going forward I’ll take the same punishment Mkize will receive. I think that’s fair.

  • When will Dr Zweli Mkhize be arrested?

    We, as a country, are sick and tired with politicians being allowed to get away without penalty and “retiring” on full pension. Throw the book, Cyril.

  • Suspension on full pay with benefits is hardly punishment.
    Criminal charges, convictions and lengthy jail terms of EVERYBODY involved is the only way this will not be seen as another ANC “sweeping under the carpet” operation.

  • “Crisp said officials will be suspended on full pay as they have not been charged yet.” May we assume that once they have been charged, the not-insignificant salaries that they will have received whilst suspended will be recovered.
    Much as our beloved ANC government vilifies that of Rwanda, it should follow the example of that country where corrupt behaviour in government (whether by cabinet minister or office clerk) is speedily and mercilessly punished. Those at whom the finger of suspicion is substantially pointed, particularly those who have sworn an oath of office, are considered guilty and must prove their innocence.

  • A precedent needs to be set here with nothing less than a 10 year jail sentence without parole for each person guilty of taking even one cent of public money. That will give the rest of the ANC something to think about. Maybe their pension fund can pay for their prison food because clearly the taxpayer can’t be burdened with paying for rubbish like this.

  • THIS is shocking Mr. Ramaphosa! Those most affected by this looting are the poor, marginalised and unemployed in our country who make up the majority of our population. A crime against humanity? Perhaps its time that our black middle class brothers and sisters start to speak up and condemn these actions in the same that many white middle class spoke up against apartheid.
    Straight talk and talk straight !

    • The other most affected by all this looting is the 5.8% who are now paying nearly 90% of the personal income tax! If the tax payer leaves then the poor and the previously disadvantaged really have no chance of surviving!

  • One apology after another! We haven’t done our best in the past, but we will do better in the future!! Better at what? Anyone who believes this has got to have serious mental issues. After 20 odd years its been a downward spiral with the ANC. The only people who have benefited in these 20 odd years are those who have participated in self enrichment schemes. For goodness sake vote these selfish criminals out of power. Send them to prison where they all belong. Give all the people of this beautiful country a chance to be educated, to live in peace, to enjoy the richness of their hard honest work. Get rid of this disease known as the ANC.

    • It’s 27 years.

      That means South Africa has been ruled by the ANC for 45% of its life as a Republic.

      By 2027 that will be just over 50%. By that time, what do you think you will point to as the infrastructural, social and economic successes of the ANC versus the old apartheid government?

  • Seems this whole digital vibes scandal is an attempt by the ANC government to make us believe they are coming down hard on corruption… hey, look what we’re doing here, don’t look at all those other cases and cadres where we’ve done nothing!
    Seems like Zwele Mkhize and co. will be the fall guys, but with a soft landing…

  • Surely if there is sufficient evidence they should be prosecuted. Disciplinary action is hardly what we expect in cases such as this where there appears to be clear corruption. It is not the answer. These members should face the full might of our judicial system, lose their freedom, ill gotten gains and pensions. Only then will we, the long suffering public, be satisfied. There are hundreds of offenders on suspension at this time waiting, for very expensive, long drawn out disciplinary hearings.

  • Suspension on full pay! Really? What’s the point? A lovely holiday while waiting for a light slap on the wrist and, most probably, appointment to a higher post. Where is SARS? Most probably hunting down the ordinary, law-abiding taxpayer while these ‘criminals’ know they will get away with it. We are nothing but a mafia state.