Activists red-flag ANC, business ties of man tipped to be new health ombud
Health activists sound the alarm for the potential of a political whitewash as an ANC loyalist looks set to take up the position of health ombud.
The man tipped to be the next health ombudsman comes to this demanding role with questions about his political allegiances, business directorships and also his age.
Professor Taole Resetselemang Mokoena (71), who is also the retired head of surgery from the University of Pretoria, is expected to be named this morning, Friday, 2 June 2023, by Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahlaa, as successor to Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, whose seven-year term ended on 31 May.
The role of health ombud, even with its shortcomings and limitations, has become a critical vehicle for patients and family members to seek justice, accountability and recourse when they have been mistreated by the health sector. Thousands of complaints have come through the Office of the Health Ombud since it was established in 2013. Over the past seven years the office has investigated some of the worst tragedies and disasters to beset the country’s health sector. Notable are the Life Esidimeni tragedy that cost the lives of a known 144 mental health patients, as well as the investigation into the dire state of care at Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital and the death of Shonisani Lethole at the Tembisa Provincial Hospital.
Health systems analysts, health activists and a former Health Department insider spoke to Maverick Citizen. Their identities have been withheld for fear of being targeted. They say there are clear red flags about Mokoena’s appointment that can’t be ignored.
Civil society should be making a fuss about Mokoena’s connections at Chancellor House.
Mokoena is an ANC loyalist and one-time chairperson of Chancellor House, the ANC’s investment company. His business interests include 27 active directorships of companies. These include several companies under the “Continental Africa” moniker. In June 2008, the Mail and Guardian reported that Continental Africa Power Supplies, of which Mokoena was a major stakeholder, stood to score from a R1-billion contract to supply transformers to Eskom.
Currently the array of companies of which Mokoena holds directorships include health-related Continental Health Holdings (Pty) Ltd and Continental Pharmaceuticals (Pty) Ltd. The other companies range from those involved with communications, to casino holdings, leadership consulting and freight services. Multiple directorships of companies does raise alarms for watchdogs about possible shelf companies and also raises questions about the quality of oversight and governance. Both are stipulated to meet fiduciary obligations according to the Companies Act.
“The ANC will not want to have another political embarrassment like what we have seen with the Life Esidimeni tragedy, so the question remains if Mokoena is being placed in the role to protect the ANC,” one health systems analyst warns.
He adds: “Civil society should be making a fuss about Mokoena’s connections at Chancellor House because it makes him a stalwart and a role like the ombud’s must be about independence and impartiality and the country is suffering in a crisis of an absence of accountability.”
Another controversy linked to Mokoena goes back to 2002 when he was board chairperson of the Medical Research Council. He and his fellow board members at the time agreed to a witch-hunt after the late health minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang demanded an investigation to determine who had leaked an MRC report on Aids deaths to the press.
Ironically, Mokoena’s health ombud predecessor, Makgoba, was one of the minister’s “suspects” at the time. Makgoba was MRC president at the time.
The report, compiled by some of South Africa’s leading experts on mortality statistics, flew in the face of claims at the time by the government – and President Thabo Mbeki – that crime was the leading cause of death in South Africa.
Researchers found that, by the year 2000, Aids was the leading cause of death in South Africa.
Hennie van Vuuren, director of Open Secrets, says: “Since at least 2007 we have known that Chancellor House exists as a front to fund the governing party. It remains active and has used its leverage to assist private actors to gain a foothold in South Africa through licensing engagements with the government. Chancellor House has crossed every ethical line.
“Depending on Mokoena’s current relationship and role at Chancellor House there is a clear conflict of interest,” he adds.
A former ANC member who worked in a senior position in the Health Department says Mokoena would no doubt be an “insider and close comrade” and would be a strategic appointment for the ruling party. He says though that Mokoena, as an academic, is an advantage for the role as ombud and also that, as a surgeon, he should have good insights into understanding “what goes wrong in hospitals”.
“It has to be someone who can build institutional capacity; who can define the scope of the role in this second term because there are a flood of complaints coming in even now.” But, regardless of how Mokoena tackles the role, “if he is compromised with connections at Chancellor House then questions need to be asked”.
He says the correct candidate for the role needs to be high-profile enough to see the role as ombud almost as a legacy role to end a career on. “It has to be someone with a professional profile that is high enough that there’s no incentive for them to compromise themselves,” he says. He has additional concerns that by the end of his term Mokoena will be 78, considerably senior for a role that will demand stamina and energy.
Mokoena did his undergraduate studies at the University of Natal and holds a doctorate from Oxford University. He was previously appointed by then health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize to head up a quick turnaround investigation into the lack of personal protective equipment for health workers at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Professor Eric Buch, a health systems specialist, was dean at the Faculty of Health Sciences at Pretoria University between 2010 and 2016 when Mokoena was head of surgery.
“There are necessary questions being raised and I’m sure Prof Mokoena will answer about his business involvements and will take the right actions to resign from directorships if they impugn his independence in any way.
“I know him as a man of integrity, who has vast experience and is independently minded,” Buch says.
For SECTION27’s Sasha Stevenson the role of health ombud will enlarge as South Africa looks to the implementation of the National Health Insurance. She says this makes the appointment of the correct person in the role even more critical.
She says: “As we move to NHI it means that the ombud will have to have oversight over an even bigger section of the health system. We need someone who does have knowledge of the health system, is effective, transparent and accountable and will also be fearless.” DM