Hasta Manana

Mpumalanga’s hardline health MEC Sibongile Manana may have finally met her match.

The defiant former nurse has endured a string of sordid corruption scandals and last week stunned commentators by surviving an open revolt by African National Congress (ANC) legislators who branded her department a national disgrace.

The results of an investigation by the provincial legislature confirms that Mpumalanga’s hospitals are a “health hazard”, finding that:

  • Psychiatric patients have been released on to general wards, where they assault and rape other patients.

  • Regular power failures, without backup generators, kill patients on life-support systems.

  • Doctors are often unreachable because hospitals no longer have internal telephone or PA systems. Emergency staff must instead use public coin-operated phones to summon doctors or ambulances.

  • Doctors who complain about the conditions are charged with misconduct and fired. Those who stay are expected to treat up to 250 patients a day, compared with the norm of 45.

    The provincial legislature finally forced Premier Ndaweni Mahlangu to place the department under curatorship last week.

    Manana’s apparent invincibility was further shattered this week when the elite Scorpions unit began an investigation questioning her taste for flashy cars and extravagant gestures.
    Backed by evidence from at least two forensic audits, the probe is expected to lead to criminal charges and possible arrest.

    Manana has two official luxury vehicles, both operated at taxpayers’ expense. This is a clear violation of the national ministerial handbook, which regulates all of the perks top politicians enjoy. Leaked records indicate that the famously impetuous Manana flouted guidelines by refusing to wait for repairs to her luxury Mercedes-Benz after a relatively minor accident and ordered a brand-new Volvo S60 sedan.

    Her spokesperson, Dumisani Mlangeni, insisted on Wednesday that “it is necessary to have two vehicles so one is always available even if the other is in for a service”. He was unable to say why Manana did not use a pool car from Mpumalanga’s central government garage like all other provincial cabinet members.

    Manana’s greatest challenge will, however, be explaining why she allegedly violated tender procedures, financial controls and treasury instructions by secretly appointing TAL Investigations & Security to probe medicine theft in the province.

    Manana personally signed an open-ended contract with the small Centurion-based close corporation, giving the company free rein and an apparently unlimited budget that has so far cost taxpayers R13,5-million for 12 months of work.

    The largesse included “extremely handsome” payments of R15 000 in cash a month to informants, as well as invoices for marathon meetings of up to nine hours’ duration that the Scorpions doubt ever took place.

    “Of course we paid our people extremely handsomely. We had to to prove that it pays to be on the right side of the law,” said TAL director Linda Moni on Wednesday.

    “It is also, of course, true that we made a decent profit. But this is a capitalist country and we produced results to match the cost.”

    Some of Moni’s 37 as yet unnamed informants were junior hospital staff, earning up to three times more from TAL than from their official salaries.

    Confirming that he’d been grilled about the extravagance by Scorpions investigators earlier in the week, Moni dismissed the criminal probe as “misguided”.

    Scorpions special prosecutor advocate Cornwell Tshavhunga says Manana did not have the legal authority to sign contracts. Investigators want to know why the lucrative contract was not put out to tender, why normal government rates and guidelines were ignored, and why TAL was allowed to draft its own terms of service.

    Similar work by larger forensic companies like KPMG in neighbouring provinces has cost as little as R1-million. However, Manana insisted on Wednesday night that the deal was “good value for money”.

    “We were told these were the right people for the job. They said ‘sign this contract’, so I did. What is wrong with that? I am the MEC in this department and if anyone, including my department head [Rina Charles], claims they did not know about the deal, they are lying,” she said.

    Manana maintained it would have been impossible to put the contract out to tender. “It would have been blown out of proportion [by the public] and the noise would have alerted the criminals,” she said.

    When pressed on the issue, Manana ended the interview and failed to return later calls. She also failed to answer queries about her apparent misappropriation of vital budgets for Aids and rural home-based care that she allegedly used for music concerts, cultural villages and soccer matches.

    TAL’s investigations did contribute to the arrest in January of 13 doctors, pharmacists and health officials, including foreign affairs representative Ronnie Mamoepa’s brother Dr Thabo Mamoepa.

    But police this week rubbished much of TAL’s work while testifying at Mamoepa’s theft trial being held near Nelspruit. Task team commander Captain Johannes Britz emphatically refuted Moni’s contention that the widespread theft of medical supplies was the work of an international crime syndicate. Britz told the court the theft was opportunistic “individual greed for individual benefit”.

    “It’s sad, but the police never give credit where it’s due,” Moni responded on Wednesday.

    “Certain syndicates are taking advantage of the chaos to do dirty deeds. And the higher up you get in the health department, the more scandalous it is.”

    The Scorpions appear to agree and are reportedly preparing charges against executive managers, based on the findings of two damning forensic reports by KPMG and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Yet to be made public, these appear to implicate Charles and the department’s chief finance officer Richard Mnisi in some of the worst scandals.

    Tshavhunga confirmed that the Scorpions probe was wide-ranging and involved “extremely serious” charges, but declined to elaborate. — African Eye News Service

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