Just hours after the special investigating unit report on Digital Vibes was finally released, implicating former health minister Zweli Mkhize, President Cyril Ramaphosa defended him, asking the media to be considerate.
Speaking during a media briefing on the ANC’s local government elections campaign on Wednesday night, Ramaphosa said that as much as Mkhize is implicated in the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) report on Digital Vibes, “he has served the nation well”.
“Much as we want to be gung ho and send people to the gallows, we do need to also recognise some of the things that he has done. I think many people remember how he really served the nation at the beginning of the pandemic. He was the sole voice of the pandemic … We were able to navigate our way around the pandemic because of his experience and having also served in other positions.
“I remember very well how he steered the nation around HIV/Aids when he was health MEC in KwaZulu-Natal, when we were going through a period of denialism. He took a different path that finally defined the way that we have responded to HIV.”
Ramaphosa added that Mkhize had resigned and that needed to be recognised.
The president released the much-awaited SIU report on Wednesday, which found that Mkhize’s conduct in manipulating tender processes to award a R150-million contract with his department was “at best, improper … at worst, unlawful”.
The report found that Mkhize’s denials that he or his family had benefited from the tender were “untrue”.
Although the SIU has recommended that criminal charges are pursued against current health director general Dr Sandile Buthelezi and former acting director general Dr Anban Pillay, it has only recommended executive action by the president against Mkhize.
The former health minister resigned from his post in August after the SIU submitted the damning report to Ramaphosa — relieving the president of the responsibility of firing him — and appears, for now, to have avoided criminal prosecution over the debacle.
Referring to Pillay, Ramaphosa said he thought that due process within the parameters of the law should be followed.
He said he was a process person and those implicated in the report should be treated fairly and allowed to respond “so that whatever wrong that has been done should be followed through with … consequence management but based on fairness”.
According to the report, Mkhize’s conduct in approaching the then director general of the department to appoint Digital Vibes was “at best improper … and at worst … unlawful” because it constituted interference in the affairs of the department’s administrative authority.
The report found that the selection of Digital Vibes to conduct National Health Insurance and Covid-19 media campaigns was irregular, as were subsequent extensions and modifications of the contract.
As a result, the department incurred “irregular and fruitless expenditure” amounting to R150-million, for which Digital Vibes “owners” Tahera Mather and Naadhira Mitha should be charged for fraud.
Mather is Mkhize’s former spokesperson and played a key role in his campaign for the ANC presidency in 2017, which he abandoned.
There is also evidence that Mkhize and Pillay directed other department officials to ensure that Digital Vibes got the contract. This includes WhatsApp messages and emails from personal accounts.
He said the release of the Digital Vibes report would not affect the ANC negatively, but would proved that the ANC had committed itself to root out corruption.
“Our slowness, being sticklers for process, should not be misunderstood for being reluctant and not wanting to do it. It should be seen for what it is that we are determined … We will finally speed up the process because we are traversing territory that, in a way, we haven’t really traversed, but we are going to get better.”
Ramaphosa also commented on the recent financial troubles faced by the ANC, saying this was a “sore point” for the party.
The Mail & Guardian recently reported that ANC staff members had not been paid for the three months after an agreement was reached between the employer and employees.
People returned to work two weeks ago after going on strike following months of delayed salary payments. Employees have also complained that the ANC has failed to pay their provident fund for almost two years.
The staff members’ strike was said to have contributed to the reason the ANC missed the deadline to submit its list of candidates to the Electoral Commission of South Africa for the local government elections, which would have meant the party would not contest several municipalities.
The president said the Party Funding Act had drive some donors away because they feared their names would be made public. He said the state of the economy had also affected businesses, which meant they could not fund the ANC.
“It’s a really difficult time, but we are working very fervently to address the funding gap. Yes, it puts us at the backfoot when our staff has not been paid. It is a huge problem for us … we are working on programmes and efforts to pay the staff,” he said.