/ 13 April 2022

Digital Vibes scandal: Zweli Mkhize bids to clear his name

KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize
The former health minister and ANC contender for a top six position claims the Special Investigating Unit distorted facts

Embattled former health minister Zweli Mkhize can breathe a short sigh of relief after parliament’s ethics committee cleared him of unethical behaviour relating to the Digital Vibes scandal. 

The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) found that Mkhize may have influenced the awarding of the tender to Digital Vibes and also alleged that he may have contravened the Public Finance Management Act. The former minister and his son were referred to the National Prosecuting Authority.

In a letter to Mkhize dated 12 April, which was leaked to the media, the Joint Standing Committee on Ethics and Members’ Interests concluded that Mkhize did not breach the ethics code, and added that the matter was now closed. 

The committee investigated Mkhize after a complaint by the Democratic Alliance’s deputy chief whip, Siviwe Gwarube. 

The committee said that it considered the complaint in two parts: that his son Thamsanqa received benefits from the Digital Vibes contract to the amounts of R300 000 and R160 000 and that Mkhize received benefits totalling R6 720 for electrical work done by 4Way Maintenance at his property in Cranbrook, Bryanston. 

The provisions of the code could not be applied to hold Mkhize liable for the alleged benefit received by his adult son, said the committee. 

It also found that there was no evidence linking Mkhize to the R6 720 because Thamsanqa was the person liaising with 4Way Maintenance and the person who was charged with paying invoices.  

Mkhize resigned from the cabinet last year after the SIU recommended that the president take executive action against him in relation to the matter. 

The SIU found in its investigation 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, over 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 eventually abandoned.

Mkhize is expected to hear from the special tribunal whether he has a case against the SIU on Wednesday. 

He has accused the SIU of having an agenda when it made findings against him in its investigation of the R150-million contract awarded to Digital Vibes.

Mkhize claims that the SIU issued its referral letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa on the Digital Vibes contract on the same day it interrogated him. 

In a new bid to clear his name, Mkhize has shifted the blame to the former director-general at the department of health, Precious Matsoso, in the awarding of the tender to his close associates. 

In an application to the North Gauteng high court on 18 March, Mkhize said he was seeking the reviewing and setting aside of the findings and recommendations made by the SIU. He is also asking the court to declare the conduct of the SIU unlawful and unconstitutional. 

The fresh bid by Mkhize comes after the Mail & Guardian reported that the KwaZulu-Natal heavyweight was consolidating the province behind his bid for the ANC’s top six. 

It is unclear whether Mkhize will throw his name in the hat for president or deputy president of the country. 

According to Mkhize, the SIU placed much reliance on Matsoso when making adverse findings against him. 

He argues that Matsoso played a significant role in the appointment of Digital Vibes by the department, arguing that she had every reason to attempt to pin the blame on him rather than to accept her role in the appointment of Digital Vibes. 

Mkhize contends that his relationship with the former director-general was strained as he had expressed his dissatisfaction with the slow progress of the National Health Insurance roll-out. 

Mkhize claims that it was Matsoso who “pushed” the appointment of Digital Vibes before her resignation. 

To support his claim, Mkhize said Matsoso wrote to the treasury requesting its approval to deviate from normal procurement processes for the appointment of Digital Vibes as a communication strategist for a period not exceeding 12 months at the hourly rate of R800,  excluding disbursements. 

Mkhize added that the treasury did not support her request because it was not clear how Digital Vibes was selected, adding that the company was not the only communication service provider with relevant experience and capacity 

He argued that what was never explained was that Mather had already participated in meetings as a representative of the health department at Matsoso’s insistence and invitation before she sought deviation. This claim was supported by the government communications director-general, Phumla Williams. 

“Moreover as the accounting officer Matsoso was the only person who had the power to authorise which officials or consultants attend official meetings of government as representatives of the department,” he added. 

In her affidavit, Williams explained that Matsoso had been advised that there was a panel of advertising agencies the government had used in the past. Mkhize argued that had Matsoso used the government’s panel, Digital Vibes would not have been appointed. 

In his claims against the SIU, Mkhize argues that the unit’s investigation was “closed-minded” with a “premeditated” outcome in mind. 

He states that the SIU did not take submissions and further evidence into account when making adverse findings against him. Mkhize also accused the SIU of failing to disclose various allegations made against him by Matsoso. He added that the SIU only provided him with text messages between himself and Matsoso, excluding her full affidavit. 

“It is a basic principle of our law that if a decision-maker is in possession of information which is addressed to a person against whom a decision is imminent, the decision-maker is required to disclose that information to the person concerned and that she be given the opportunity to deal with it.” 

Mkhize argued that there was no evidence from the SIU that anyone accepted gratification at his insistence, and added that the SIU had distorted true facts on the basis of hypothetical conjecture divorced from reality.