/ 17 June 2021

Parliament’s health committee no closer to Digital Vibes contract answers, awaits SIU report

Zwelie Mkhize 1157 Dv
Answers are scant as Dr Zweli Mkhize remains on "special leave". (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Tensions were high during a health portfolio committee meeting on Thursday, as MPs demanded answers about the department’s allegedly irregular R150-million Digital Vibes contract. 

It was the first time acting health minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane appeared before the committee. She took over the portfolio from Zweli Mkhize, who was placed on special leave earlier this month because of the controversial contract being awarded to his associates. 

Despite Kubayi-Ngubane’s plea to focus on the more pressing matter at hand — the country’s Covid-19 third wave — committee members were adamant that their questions about Digital Vibes should be heard. 

Before he was placed on special leave, Mkhize failed to appear before the committee to answer questions about the contract. He said he had been legally advised not to do so, because the matter was sub judice. 

But the committee was told on Thursday by its legal advisers that Mkhize should have appeared, because although an investigation into the matter was underway, it was not yet in court. 

Kubayi-Ngubane and the health department’s director general, Sandile Buthelezi, were left to respond to the issues about Mkhize and the contract. Numerous questions were raised, but few were answered. 

The Democratic Alliance’s Siviwe Gwarube, together with members of the  National Freedom Party, Freedom Front Plus and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) wanted specifics from the department about Mkhize’s role in the contract: Who benefited from it? What procurement process was followed? Who signed off the contract? They also wanted to know about the availability of an auditor general report.  

Kubayi-Ngubane was able to offer only snippets. She confirmed that several officials were involved in the alleged wrongdoing, but said their names could not be disclosed, because “the process cannot be compromised”, referring to the ongoing probe by the Special Investigative Unit (SIU). 

She confirmed the SIU report was due to be completed by the end of June.  

Buthulezi also dodged specifics by placing all questions under the umbrella of the SIU investigation. He did concede that there was a possibility that the department had been  “overcharged” for certain services. 

The department’s chief financial officer, Ian van der Merwe, said that the value of the Digital Vibes contract was initially R140-million. He added that the department recognised that it needed “to reprioritise revision budgets extensively”. 

The acting minister, acknowledging the frustrations of committee members, said: “I want to emphasise honourable members, what would help is to allow [the] SIU that is drilling down on detail to do the investigation [and to] come to the portfolio committee, because we are also waiting for that investigation to give us more detail”.

While trying to answer questions about the contract and the third wave, Kubayi-Ngubane was interrupted by the EFF’s Naledi Chirwa. 

Chirwa claimed the department of health had misled parliament about Covid-19 statistics and the number of healthcare workers who had been vaccinated. 

“I just want the minister to respect me and I will respect her as well. She cannot say that it is for this reason or that reason. She must answer the question,” said Chirwa.

Kubayi-Ngubane said Chirwa had made a serious allegation, which should be backed up by proof. 

But instead, the interruptions from Chirwa continued, eventually leading the ANC’s Mxolisa Sokatsha to compare her to a “headless chicken”, because it was “not the first time” Chirwa had been disruptive. 

Chairperson Sibongiseni Dhlomo consequently removed Chirwa from the virtual platform.