DAILY MAVERICK WEBINAR
Digital Vibes scandal: The story behind the story
As news broke on Tuesday that former health minister Zweli Mkhize is challenging the SIU findings into the Digital Vibes scandal, the journalist who broke the story was taking Daily Maverick Insiders on a journey into his investigation.
Pieter-Louis Myburgh, the Scorpio journalist who exposed a dodgy R150-million communications tender that saw Health Minister Zweli Mkhize fired from his post, says he was not altogether surprised when his findings began to take shape.
Speaking at a Daily Maverick webinar for Insiders on Tuesday evening, Myburgh reminded viewers that Mkhize had been trailed by whispers of alleged corruption for several years before the Digital Vibes scandal. During Mkhize’s long career, he has occupied various significant positions within both KwaZulu-Natal provincial politics and the ANC, and has had access to significant quantities of money to disburse.
Myburgh said that one of the first “question marks” around Mkhize occurred when his wife, May Mkhize, received a R12-million loan to buy a farm near Pietermaritzburg while Mkhize was the provincial MEC for finance.
As treasurer-general of the ANC, Mkhize was by definition “put in the way of some curious dealings”, Myburgh said. Among them: the Transnet “tall trains” locomotive contract.
Myburgh suggested that the lesson for journalists and the South African public at large is to fight against the national tendency towards short memories for political scandals and keep the dubious pasts of government ministers in mind.
The investigative journalist explained that the Digital Vibes contract first came to his attention in 2020 when Myburgh was poring over government spending on Covid-19. At that stage, it was listed as around R82-million spent on Covid-19-related communications — which struck him as expensive.
“There wasn’t very much in the way of radio ads, TV ads or billboards at the time,” Myburgh recalled, making him question where all the communications millions were going.
He proceeded to investigate the then unknown Digital Vibes company and turned up some strange details almost at once. The company entrusted with a multimillion-rand communications contract was registered to a residential address in Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal — and Google Street View revealed that the address in question was effectively a building site.
The company’s director was listed as Radha Hariram, but it soon became clear that Hariram was a front for Tahera Mather: a figure familiar to political journalists as Mkhize’s longtime aide.
“The old ‘follow the money’ tenet is really at the heart of investigative journalism,” said Myburgh.
In this case, following the money — with the aid of financial documents provided by sources — revealed that the bulk of the money paid to Digital Vibes for Covid-19 communications was diverted to the pockets of Mather and her family, and the family of Zweli Mkhize.
Mkhize’s son Dedani got money to help set up a hair salon; Mkhize’s daughter-in-law Sthoko received the cash for an upmarket nail bar.
Myburgh’s investigative reports on the matter have since been vindicated by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), whose probe has mirrored Myburgh’s findings.
“Any sceptical South African is welcome to go and draw the SIU filings,” said Myburgh.
Although Mkhize has now launched a court bid to have the SIU findings set aside on the grounds that the probe amounted to a witch-hunt, Myburgh says his initial impression of Mkhize’s legal challenge is that it is “very broad” and does not address the very detailed accounts of cash flow within the SIU report.
Myburgh is now interested in investigating other aspects of Mkhize’s governance history.
“I’m concerned about what happened at the Department of Health in terms of other contacts when Zweli Mkhize took over,” Myburgh said.
“I’d like to know what else is hiding in the Department of Health finances while he was minister of health.” DM