Corruption Watch is investigating the Mpumalanga Health Department's decision to award a multimillion-rand contract "without tender" to circumcise 260 000 boys and men in the province, the Sunday Independent reported on the weekend.
The civil society organisation is also querying why the contract was given to Mkhago Health Care Services, owned by Ebby Bongani Mkhabela, a doctor linked to a circumcision procedure on a four-year-old Mpumalanga boy five years ago, who is the subject of a R10-million legal suit against the provincial and national health departments in the Pretoria High Court.
Corruption Watch is also probing a potential conflict of interest in relation to Mkhabela's wife, Ramatsemela Mumsy Mkhabela, who was a Mkhago director until December. She joined the health department as a medical manager at Themba Hospital in Mbombela (Nelspruit) four months before the contract was awarded.
Earlier this year, the department signed a one-year contract with Mkhago to perform the circumcisions at a cost of R700 a person, without putting the deal out to tender. If all 260 000 circumcisions are done, the contract will be worth R182 million.
The Sunday Independent has learnt that aside from the concerns around the tender, staff in the department are also worried that it is paying too much – R300 more than it costs some provinces. Provincial health spokesman Ronnie Masilela did not respond to questions.
Corruption Watch's head of legal and investigations, Nicola Whittaker, said that the head of department, Richard Mnisi, had admitted no public tender was advertised. Mnisi had told Corruption Watch that Mkhago presented the department with a proposal which was accepted as it was "unique" in that the company offered to go to rural areas where most doctors would not go.
The department's target was 500 000 circumcisions by the end of the 2013 financial year. So far, Mkhago has performed more than 4 000 circumcisions. Its contract will end in March.
Mkhago's spokesman Edwin Mkhabela told The Sunday Independent that there was nothing untoward about their contract. The company had realised that the department needed help with its voluntary medical male circumcision programme and presented it with a business plan.
Part of their proposal was to set up mobile medical centres and tents in rural areas with portable beds. He said the department's 260 000 count was only a projection and Mkhago would only be paid for circumcisions done.
With regard to their per-person costing, Mkhabela said companies in other provinces charged less but used the department's beds, equipment and medicines. Mkhago used its own supplies. He said Ramatsemela Mkhabela's position at the hospital had no bearing on the contract awarded to their company. She was a highly qualified anaesthetist who had been headhunted by the department late last year and had subsequently resigned from the company. Earlier this year she had declared her husband's company's involvement.
She couldn't be reached for comment. Corruption Watch has requested a copy of the contract between the department and Mkhago as well as the declaration of interest form, in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act.
Commenting on Dr Ebby Mkhabela's involvement in an alleged botched circumcision, Mrs Mkhabela said it was grossly unfair that something that happened five years ago was being used to discredit him.
Mkhabela questioned the the timing of the Corruption Watch investigation, saying it appeared that the tip-off was a result of politicking within the department. "Dr Mkhabela has gone through extensive training in circumcisions since then and has conducted several training sessions to health staff in the province."
His primary focus has been on medical male circumcisions and he has grown to be a different person," Mkhabela said.
The Sunday Independent has seen an annexure to papers filed in the high court in which Mkhabela is listed on the hospital form as the surgeon who performed the procedure on the four-year-old on July 8, 2008.
Milisi Labe, the attorney representing the boy's father, said the boy had lost the tip of his penis and now had to urinate through a catheter as a result of the operation at the Barberton Hospital.
Labe would not comment on the surgeon, saying his interest was in the department's liability for the procedure.
Contacted this week, Dr Ebby Mkhabela did not respond to calls and SMSes.
Whittaker said Mkhago would not discuss the botched circumcision with Corruption Watch. "Mkhago's executive member Edwin Mkhabela told Corruption Watch the matter was a private matter and not related to the contract Mkhago had with the department," Whittaker said.
"If there is no personal vendetta against our Dr Mkhabela, why bring an old case to this contract?" said Mkhabela in a formal response to Corruption Watch.