/ 30 September 2021

Health department suspends officials over Digital Vibes contract

Anban Pillay Gems
Anban Pillay.

Six officials from the department of health were due to be placed on precautionary suspension on Thursday for their alleged roles in the dodgy Digital Vibes communication contract, joining director general Sandile Buthelezi, who was suspended earlier in the week.

They are acting director general Anban Pillay, head of communications Popo Maja, Mxolisi Zondi, Patricia Ngobese, Shireen Pardesi and Sifiso Dlamini. 

Three other government employees have been implicated: Reginald Ngcobo from the department of agriculture, Senzeni Ngubane from government communications, and Ian van der Merwe from the government printing works.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla announced the suspensions at a media briefing held a day after President Cyril Ramaphosa made public a report by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) into the scandal, which has already resulted in the resignation of former health minister Zweli Mkhize.

The report into the department’s awarding of a National Health Insurance media campaign and Covid-19 communications contract to Digital Vibes, found damning evidence of misconduct against government officials including Mkhize.

“We are glad that we are now able to talk freely about the report. We have noted that there are serious allegations against senior officials at the department,” Phaahla said.

“We take seriously the evidence submitted by the SIU. We know that we must follow the rule of law.”

Phaahla could not, however, say whether the department would be opening criminal cases against the implicated officials, who are among a total of 18 people who allegedly benefited from the R150-million contract irregularly awarded to Digital Vibes.

He said the department’s focus was on ensuring that the disciplinary process against its  seven employees commenced as soon as possible. New acting director general Nicholas Crisp was also in communication with the departments employing the other three employees, to take similar action.

“We are anxious to conclude the disciplinary process as a matter of urgency to bring these matters to closure in order to dedicate our time, energy and resources on the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, so that we can save as many people as possible,” Phaahla said.

The government communication and information system said in a statement it was taking action against its employee, Ngubane. 

Phaahla said he had been in communication with his predecessor, Mkhize, since his resignation.

“We call each other and we talk about other things. We are both members of the ANC. My relationship with Dr Mkhize is almost 43 years old, so we have our own personal and political relationship and that is going to continue,” he said in response to a question.

Phaahla apologised to South Africans over the “unfortunate saga”, and said measures had been put in place to prevent a similar situation occurring in future.