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Two convictions in the past week of criminals found guilty of PPE fraud will boost efforts to bring to book those involved in the large-scale thievery of the Covid-19 national state of disaster. Both are former civil servants.

With the implementation in March 2020 of the state of disaster in response to the outbreak of the deadly virus and the corresponding relaxing of procurement regulations, corruption flourished as civil servants and private companies alike fell over themselves to grab a slice of the pie. Overnight, companies sprang up or suddenly claimed an interest in the supply of personal protective equipment. Some were covertly owned by government employees.

The Special Investigating Unit was mandated through Proclamation R23 of 2020, issued in July that year, to investigate the affairs of all state institutions in respect of the procurement or contracting for goods, works and services, as far as such contracting related to the pandemic. The SIU was to investigate alleged serious maladministration in connection with the affairs of certain state institutions, as well as improper or unlawful conduct by the implicated officials or employees, and whether public money had been unlawfully taken or spent.

In KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), former KZN education department financial manager Lungelo Mhlongo was sentenced to two years in prison for PPE-related crime – the sentence was suspended for five years on condition that Mhlongo does not repeat his crime in that period.

SIU investigations revealed that Mhlongo had failed to inform his employer, the KZN Department of Education, that he had an interest in a service provider which had secured two contracts for the supply and delivery to the department of spray pumps, valued at almost one and a quarter million rands. He abused his position by keeping secret the fact that he was a cardholder of the company’s business account, and benefited from the company’s work. The SIU handed this evidence to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), which proceeded with the prosecution.

In the Eastern Cape, meanwhile, Ayanda Matinise, a former messenger in the office of the then Eastern Cape Health MEC Sindiswa Gomba, received a 10-year sentence for fraud and forgery. As with Mhlongo, the SIU had provided the NPA with evidence resulting from its investigation, showing that Matinise forged the supply chain director’s signature to award a tender to a service provider for the supply and delivery N95 masks – valued at R23-million.

KZN Hawks spokesperson Captain Yolisa Mgolodela said that the service provider submitted invoices for payment – but the procurement committee, which knew nothing about the awarding of the tender, asked to see the award letter.

“On scrutiny of the letter, it was discovered that the content including signatures were fraudulent,” said Mgolodela.

The SIU has welcomed both developments.

“The prison sentence of Matinise [and Mhlongo] is a clear demonstration by State institutions of the implementation of the SIU investigation outcomes and consequence management to recover assets and financial losses suffered by State institutions and/or to prevent further losses,” it said.