'You shielded him': DA MP slams ANC for protecting Mkhize on Digital Vibes scandal

Amanda Khoza Presidency reporter
Former health minister Zweli Mkhize.
Former health minister Zweli Mkhize.

Members of the parliamentary portfolio committee on health have conceded that they let South Africans down by not holding former minister Zweli Mkhize and senior health officials accountable for their role in the Digital Vibes scandal.

“Members of this committee, particularly members of the ANC, shielded the former minister from accountability and blocked that meeting from happening,” said the DA’s Siviwe Gwarube on Friday night.

Gwarube was speaking during a special sitting of the portfolio committee on health in the National Assembly where health minister Dr Joe Phaahla and acting director-general Dr Nicholas Crisp, were outlining a plan of action on the findings and recommendations of the Special Investigating Unit report into the irregular awarding of a R150m tender to Digital Vibes.

Gwarube said: “A couple of months ago this committee said it was absolutely critical that the former minister [Mkhize] and the senior management of the department be summoned to this committee to answer questions around this particular matter. Not only did we ask that because we wanted to hear this information but it is our constitutional duty to understand what has gone on.

“The reality is that we have also got to take accountability where we have erred. Members of this committee, particularly members of the ANC, shielded the former minister from accountability and blocked that meeting from happening.”

The MP was talking about a previous committee meeting when ANC members refused to have a sitting to discuss the Digital Vibes matter saying it was sub judice. It was later found that this was not the case as the matter was still being investigated by the SIU.

“With the publication of the SIU report, it is absolutely clear to us that we, because of the majority that is held by the governing party in this committee, we failed in our duty because we had an opportunity to pose direct questions to the former minister but we didn’t do that because we were blocked from doing that.

“Members of this committee must hang their heads in shame because not only did they block accountability but they failed the people of SA,” she said.

Her sentiments were shared by her colleague Haseenabanu Ismail, who said: “There were times when we had to fight with the former chairperson [Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo] to say actually have the department give us more reports on the vaccine rollout and only after a lot of nagging did we get more meetings with the minister.”

The ACDP’s Marie Sukers joined in, saying there was a clear culture of impunity that exists within the Department of Health.

“It is our job to hold the executive accountable. The responses we received from the Department of Health, not only in relation to Digital Vibes, but also in the handling of the Covid-19 response in general.”

Sukers said there was a “disrespect and disregard for committee in general and we have officials and the executive that deliberately avoids answering questions and so we have the theatre of politics when we are dealing with a matter that affects millions of people. This is our country and it bleeds in our watch.”

But the ANC’s Mxolisa Sokatsha and Tshilidzi Munyai denied this saying they did not block the sitting.

Sokatsha said: “Our understanding as ANC members was that the SIU was still busy with investigating the matter and that is why we are meeting today because we have a full-fledged report, so it is malicious for the member to say that we blocked the report. I do not think that is correct.”

Munyai agreed with Sokatsha, saying: “There are some political parties who are parading as anti-corruption activists, yet they are campaigning around the alleged corruption claiming that the ANC was blocking the report ... Using this report to attack the governing party, this is a sheer act of populism ..." 

Munyai was one of the MPs who told parliament that it would be improper for the committee to discuss the matter because it was under investigation.

On Thursday, TimesLIVE reported that while the Digital Vibes scandal would directly affect the capacity in the national department of health, Phaahla assured the nation he and his team would do their best to ensure the “destabilisation does not ultimately affect service delivery”.  

The minister announced that seven officials would be placed on precautionary suspension by the end of Thursday and clarified that some of the 18 people implicated were not employed by the government.

Those in the department of health were DG Dr Sandile Buthelezi, DDG Dr Anban Pillay, head of communication Popo Maja, Patricia Ngobese, Shireen Pardesi, Sifiso Dlamini and Mxolisi Zondi. Those outside the department but in government were Reginald Ngcobo at the department of agriculture, Senzeni Ngubane at GCIS and Ian van der Merwe at the government printers.

Crisp told the committee that the core findings contained in the report included that the Digital Vibes contract was awarded irregularly, the Treasury regulations and procurement processes were flouted and the Public Finance Management Act processes were not followed.

The report also found that officials had a conflict of interest and this led to fruitless and wasteful expenditure of R72m and irregular expenditure of R150m.