Health department asks for patience over SIU's Digital Vibes probe

Amanda Khoza Presidency reporter
Department of health director-general Sandile Buthelezi. File photo.
Department of health director-general Sandile Buthelezi. File photo.
Image: Supplied

National health department director-general Dr Sandile Buthelezi on Thursday pleaded with the members of the portfolio committee to allow him not to disclose the names of officials who have been found guilty in the Digital Vibes scandal.

He made the plea out of fear of jeopardising the Special Investigating Unit’s probe.

“We request that the identity of implicated individuals not be disclosed at this stage to avoid compromising the investigation and consequence-management processes that are under way,” said Buthelezi.  

Acting minister of health Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, along with Buthelezi and other senior department officials, appeared in parliament to give an update on the vaccine procurement, the state of preparedness for the third wave and progress made on the SIU probe.

Earlier, MPs were told that they erred when they failed to hold Mkhize, who has since been placed on special leave, accountable for his alleged role in the saga.

Updating parliament, Buthelezi said that in December 2020, he received the final report from the auditor-general which found – in relation to the Digital Vibes contract - that the department was overcharged for services it could have provided more economically by using other service providers. He was then asked to conduct further investigations.

The Ngubane Tax Advisory firm was appointed to investigate the awarding of the contract, the changing of scope from NHI to Covid-19 and investigate whether the department received value for money on the contract.

Buthelezi said once this was done, on May 24, he received the final investigation report from Ngubane and the findings included that:

  • The tender/bidding process followed was in contravention of the Public Finance Management Act.
  • The process of appointing Digital Vibes was irregular. The irregularity findings include among others inconsistences in the bid committee and the lack of disclosure of conflict of interest by some members of the bid committees.
  • That the amount of R37m  paid constitutes fruitless and wasteful expenditure.
  • In relation to the Covid-19 work, the company received a request for work from the department prior to the contract being expanded to include Covid-19. Requests resulted in a financial commitment of approximately R35m that the department ended up paying.
  • It found that any amount paid to the company before the approval of the expansion was irregular as the expenditure was incurred in contravention of Treasury regulations.
  • Investigators concluded that due to the fact that Digital Vibes appointment was irregular the total sum of R150m paid to Digital Vibes should be reported in terms of the Public Finance Management Act.

Before receiving the final report, Buthelezi said that in February he was contacted by the SIU informing him that they, too, would be investigating the contract. 

“The department has co-operated fully with this investigation by the SIU. They have requested a number of documents, which we have provided. They have requested some IT equipment, which was provided too. They have requested some affidavits from specific individuals which were provided, and have had various consultations with various individuals including the DG."

Buthelezi said there was ongoing communication between himself and the SIU with the latest communication being on Monday.

“The SIU has not concluded its processes and the report has not yet been handed over to the department of health. We are aware that when the SIU do their investigation, they normally do what is called a referral for disciplinary processes.”

Buthelezi said the department was still waiting for the referral.

Buthelezi said the department had suspended the contract in February and reported the irregular expenditure in terms of the PFMA.

“We have commenced with consequence management in relation to the wrongdoing by the officials identified in the investigation report. However, on discussion with the SIU, they said it would be advisable that we wait for the referral from them as they felt that some of the charges that are recommended in the report might actually expand because they have more powers.”

He said both parties felt that they compiled a comprehensive charge sheet.

“We have commenced discussions with senior counsel in relation to the recovery of funds mentioned in the report but again the SIU has advised that they actually have mechanisms in place so we should wait for them in terms of recouping the funds.”

Buthelezi told MPs he had been advised to wait for the SIU’s final report, which was expected at the end of June, before acting on the recommendations from the internal Ngubane report.

Despite Buthelezi’s plea, NFP’s Ahmed Munzoor Shaik Emam demanded to know the names of the individuals who managed the process.

FF Plus’ Phillip van Staden insisted that Mkhize, who is on special leave, be summoned to appear before parliament.

“This report, with all due respect, is disappointing and does not give us information that we need to get on this matter and that’s why I am saying the person involved in this matter, must come and appear before us.”

In addition he said the matter must be handed to the National Assembly speaker and be discussed by all the whips.

The DA’s Siviwe Gwarube expressed her disappointment on the presentation, saying it was a repetition of what had been in the public domain for several weeks.

“I want to know what was the total value of this contract that was advertised,  how many contractors were shortlisted and on what basis Digital Vibes was chosen. There has been a lot of talk of how the contract moved from the initial brief around NHI and then converted to be around the pandemic. What did the department seek to do?”

She asked acting minister of health Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane if Mkhize knew that his associates were involved in the matter and if he had signed  any contract.

The ANC’s Tshilidzi Munyai welcomed the report and asked that parliament’s legal adviser conducts further consultations on the matter.

“The fact before us is that the investigation is inconclusive. Whether the minister was on leave or not, he was not going to account on a report that was not concluded by the SIU. In this regard, I am putting forward a plea to allow the investigation to be concluded by the SIU to avoid jeopardising the process.”

However, the EFF’s Naledi Chirwa asked the department why it paid a company for duties that were already covered in the internal department of communications.

“You paid R150,000 just to get opinion pieces to be printed in newspapers, things that any human being can do for free, why are you tendering for such things, do you not have a communications department?” asked Chirwa.

“Minister Mkhize must come out of whatever hole he is hiding in and this portfolio committee must make sure that the minister of health, answers for his actions, we can’t hold this minister (Kubayi-Ngubane)to account because she was not there,” said Chirwa.

Kubayi-Ngubane reminded MPs that the SIU indicated that it would conclude its investigation at the end of June.

“There are several officials who have been involved but we are not able to publicly say their names because it is still allegations. If we miss any steps even if we appear before the disciplinary hearing the matter can be thrown out. SIU has requested us to halt any actions as they finalise their report in a few days.”

The minister said the SIU indicated that more charges could be added.

She said due processes were followed but “along the way it was picked up that there were almost compromises. I think what will help is to allow the SIU,  as the most suitable entity investigating this matter and drilling down to details, to come to the portfolio committee.”

The department, she said, was also relying on the SIU.

She recommended that SIU appears before the committee.

TimesLIVE


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