Health Minister Zweli Mkhize failed to appear before the portfolio committee on health on Friday, where he was expected to respond to allegations of his department’s involvement in an alleged irregular Digital Vibes contract totalling R150-million.
On Thursday, Democratic Alliance MP Siviwe Gwarube laid criminal charges against Mkhize at the Cape Town Central police station. She has also laid charges of contravening the Public Finance Management Act against the health department’s director general, Sandile Buthelezi.
This follows allegations that Mkhize’s family may have benefitted from the irregular Digital Vibes contract.
Chairperson Sibongiseni Dhlomo told the health portfolio committee that Mkhize was “legally” advised not to appear before the committee as this matter is now sub judice.
“The minister is unable to be here as advised by his lawyers, because of the ongoing investigation in the department of health,” said Dhlomo.
ANC MP Tshilidzi Munyai said it was the view of the party that Mkhize should not appear before the committee.
“The minister or ministry cannot come here and report on a matter that has not been ruled on. This could be used against him in a court of law. That is the view of the ANC,” said Munyai.
Mkhize sent Buthelezi to appear before the committee. Buthelezi told the committee that he could not provide finer details about the investigation because the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) is still finalising its report.
“The matter is now with law enforcement agencies. I am also somehow implicated in the case that was opened yesterday [by the DA]. I can confirm that, however, the forensic teams that we employed as the department have come up with evidence that is now sitting with the SIU. They are the only ones who can act on that evidence,” said Buthelezi.
“So the forensic reports are not final until the SIU has decided on them. We will wait for the SIU to finish their final report; they are still finalising other aspects. We are sure of one thing, that is the awarding of the contract to Digital Vibes was irregular,” he added.
MPs from opposition parties said Mkhize and his department were using the sub judice stance as an excuse because this issue is not in any court of law.
Economic Freedom Fighters’ Suzan Thembekwayo said, “I am very disappointed because the DG [director general] didn’t tell us anything we were expecting to hear today. I expected him to say ‘in the meantime Minister Mkhize is writing a resignation letter’. This was a waste of time, because clearly he doesn’t want to be accountable.”
The Mail & Guardian reported on Friday that Mkhize is preparing to resign from office because the SIU’s probe is underway. A preliminary brief from the SIU is expected to be handed over to President Cyril Ramaphosa. Mkhize is expected to resign in the next two weeks, a source close to the investigation told the M&G.
Gwarube said there was no reason that the case opened yesterday could be used as an excuse for Mkhize not to account before the portfolio committee.
“We cannot change the principles because now Minister Mkhize is involved. He is accountable to this committee, and now the ANC is protecting its minister because he is in a dungeon. This matter is not sub judice because it is not in front of any court, it is still under the SIU,” said Gwarube.
Dhlomo concluded by noting the meeting was not a waste of time and that he would discuss the matter with the portfolio committee’s legal team.
Digital Vibes was declared to parliament in 2019
Following a question by Adriaan van Staden, of the Freedom Front Plus, to the health minister in June last year, Mkhize said no tenders during the Covid-19 pandemic were awarded, but that “deviations were made from standards of supply chain management” for “goods and services”.
In the list provided to parliament, Digital Vibes was awarded R35 906 450 for the health department’s Covid-19 “communication strategy” and another R2 104 500 to hold media interviews.
Then in December last year DA MP Evelyn Wilson asked the health minister to provide particulars of its contract with Digital Vibes.
The minister responded, saying “the department maintains that the transaction in question was not irregular as there was a contract already in place”.
Parliament was told that Digital Vibes was appointed on 15 November 2019 after a closed tender process was followed. The company was to provide “communication services in relation to the National Health Insurance bill”.
In March 2020, before the national state of disaster was announced, Digital Vibes’ contract was extended to the end of November 2020.
But, because of “logistical arrangements”, the contract was again extended on a month-to-month basis until 31 March this year, during which a “procurement process to appoint a new service provider” would take place, the minister told parliament at the time.
By December last year, Digital Vibes had cost the government more than R82-million.