There is nowhere left to hide for former health minister Zweli Mkhize, his former deputy director-general Anban Pillay, and a number of other senior health department officials. With the eventual release of the 101-page report into the Special Investigating Unit’s (SIU) probe into the Digital Vibes, their corruption and lies are out in the open.
“This was done in the interest of fairness and in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), following a number of PAIA applications by persons and parties who wished to have sight of the report,” read a terse statement on the Presidency website.
In fact, Ramaphosa held onto the report for almost three months before announcing its release on 29 September 2021. Accused of ‘stalling’ and an ‘inability to make … ethical decisions’, the president finally yielded to the mounting calls .
“While the delay in the release of the Digital Vibes report was unfortunate, it is a positive development that such a report is now in the public domain,” said Karam Singh, Corruption Watch’s head of legal and investigations. “The report indicates the thoroughness of the SIU’s investigation and the depth and breadth of the criminal enterprise that characterised the procurement of the Digital Vibes contract.”
From money laundering to racketeering, fraud and corruption by senior officials and those associated with fronting the Digital Vibes company, Singh added, the report shows how people manipulated, for their personal enrichment and self-serving greed, a system that is already vulnerable to corruption. “The law must now further take its course and we expect to see criminal prosecutions of various individuals to flow from this investigation.”
Concerningly, Ramaphosa stood up for Mkhize at a post-manifesto launch event in the evening of 29 September, all but brushing aside the shocking malfeasance and deviousness revealed in the report. “I would like you to have a bit of consideration because, much as he is implicated in the report, he has served the nation well,” the president said somewhat inaccurately.
Any good service Mkhize has rendered has been largely, if not completely, negated by his choice to become complicit in yet another disappointing episode of corruption in the public sector.
With local government elections around the corner, the governing ANC cannot afford any more bad press if it wishes to claw back ground lost owing to the numerous scandals attached to the party over the last several years. While the ANC has made strides in enabling transparency in procurement, there is still very little accountability for wrongdoing and the nation’s goodwill is only as lasting as the period between shenanigans.
Access to information crucial for accountability
The world has just commemorated the International Day for Universal Access to Information. Access to information is a key factor in holding governments to account, which is the absolute democratic right of all citizens. When it comes to public procurement, the recent profusion of Covid-19 related scandals that have emerged during the past 18 months emphasise the critical need for transparency.
The Government Communication and Information System puts it thus:
“All citizens of South Africa have a right to access information which affects their lives. They have a right to know how government functions and how decisions taken by them may affect their lives. This transparent flow of information between government and its citizens is necessary for democracy.”
Government has not lived up to this grand claim. South Africans are tired of being kept in the dark. They are tired of being played for fools. They are even more tired of seeing the perpetuation of impunity for corrupt activities. During the years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency secrecy was the order of the day, and the greater extent of the looting and machinations was only revealed during the public hearings of the Zondo commission into allegations of state capture. Even those disturbing revelations are likely to be just the beginning.
Civil society warnings unheeded
Corruption Watch has long warned about the potential for procurement corruption, considering the opacity and disorganisation in the public procurement system. In the 10 years of its existence, the organisation has often been asked why it places a great emphasis on the public sector, with seemingly less on the private sector – although in recent times private sector corruption has become a focus area. Well, for the answer, look no further than Digital Vibes and its ilk.
Singh highlighted the need for transparency and access to information in a 2020 interview with CapeTalk. He said that without these two factors third parties will not be able to effectively monitor and scrutinise procurement contracts. “One of the big challenges we have around procurement, and one of the big corruption risks, is the lack of transparency in the system and the inability to effectively monitor what’s going on.”
Government does not have the capacity to do that type of monitoring, he added, but access to information will make the process easier – and increase the likelihood of exposing corruption.
Ramaphosa’s optimistic comments made last year before the National Assembly, regarding the decision to publish all contracts awarded under the Covid-19 state of disaster, fall flat under the weight of unending corruption exposés.
“This is a watershed moment that marks the start of a new era in transparency and accountability in the procurement of goods and services by public entities,” he proclaimed at the time.
But South Africa needs to see commitment from government towards taking action that will match the strong rhetoric, Singh said.
In his National Assembly speech Ramaphosa assured MPs that this would happen. “If the SIU finds evidence that a criminal offence has been committed, it is obliged to refer such evidence to the prosecuting authority. It is also empowered to institute civil proceedings for the recovery of any damages or losses incurred by the state.”
Corruption Watch, and the nation, however, are still waiting for the first successful prosecution of any high-profile corruption case.
What went down in the Digital Vibes saga
Irregular procurement, tax evasion, opacity, “intentional misrepresentations”, nepotism, lack of oversight, and conflict of interest are just some of the disturbing misdemeanours uncovered by the SIU.
Digital Vibes is a media company specialising in various fields of marketing, branding and communication. It was hired by the national Department of Health (NDOH) to handle communications for the NDOH’s National Health Insurance media campaign, and was later also tasked with working on the department’s Covid-19 campaigns.
At the time of the tender award Digital Vibes was seemingly owned by Radha Hariram, who was later unmasked as a petrol station employee. The SIU report indicates that the real owners were Tahera Mather and Naadhira Mitha, who were ‘close associates’ of Mkhize, and that Digital Vibes was merely a front for the pair.
“Furthermore, Digital Vibes (‘owned’ by Ms Hariram), Ms Hariram (in her personal capacity), Ms Mather and Ms Mitha (at the instance of the Minister), contravened the provisions of section 2 of the POCA (money laundering).”
An earlier attempt involving Mather, when the NDOH tried to appoint her as a communication specialist, was shot down by the department’s supply chain management (SCM) division, whose objection was that “an individual could not be appointed for the required communication campaign, and that a service provider had to be appointed by means of a compliant SCM process”.
Allegedly, adds the SIU report, the NDOH then irregularly and unlawfully proceeded to appoint Digital Vibes, who then appointed Mather and Mitha as contractors/consultants.
There is no ownership or even directorship information on the company’s website, meaning that its true beneficial owners are hidden.
Digital Vibes ultimately received around R150-million from the NDOH in respect of the NHI and Covid-19 media campaigns. In respect of this windfall, says the SIU report, it did not declare any company tax.
As health minister, Mkhize was the executive authority of the NDOH and is implicated for a number of questionable actions. Other implicated persons include Pillay – who is placed as the central figure in the scandal – CFO Ian van der Merwe, chief director Shireen Pardesi, communications head Popo Maja, suspended director-general Sandile Buthelezi, some members of the technical evaluation committee, and a host of companies and individuals, including family members of Mkhize.
In total, according to reports, 18 people have been referred to the National Prosecuting Authority for criminal charges – Pillay is the only one known for sure at this stage.
The report states that: “The obtained evidence supports the referral thereof to the President for purposes of taking executive action against the Minister. Evidence justifying the institution of disciplinary action against officials in the NDOH, i.e. Dr Pillay, Mr Maja, Ms Pardesi, Dr Buthelezi … and Mr Van Der Merwe, has been obtained.”
The SIU also obtained evidence “justifying the blacklisting of Digital Vibes from conducting business with the public sector”.
But for now, a fed-up nation waits for the long-promised consequences for perpetrators to unfold. Perhaps it should not hold its breath.