Five shocking revelations from the SIU report on Digital Vibes

29 September 2021 - 14:00
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Tahera Mather with former health minister Zweli Mkhize. File photo
Tahera Mather with former health minister Zweli Mkhize. File photo
Image: Supplied

Former health minister Zweli Mkhize’s conduct in the approval of the R150m tender to media company Digital Vibes was unlawful, according to a Special Investigating Unit (SIU) report released on Wednesday.

President Cyril Ramaphosa approved the publication of the report, which investigated the awarding of National Health Insurance (NHI) media campaigns and the subsequent Covid-19 communications tender to Digital Vibes while Mkhize was in charge.

Tahera Mather and Naadhira Mitha, cited in the report as close associates of the former minister, controlled the company. Mather was the former minister’s strategic communications adviser. 

Here are five revelations contained in the report:

Wrongful appointment of Mather 

A whistleblower alleged the department of health (NDOH) attempted to appoint Mather as a communication expert but this fell flat because it did not adhere to the supply chain management process.

“Allegedly, the NDOH then irregularly and unlawfully proceeded to appoint Digital Vibes, who then appointed Ms Mather and Ms Mitha as contractors/consultants,” says the report.

Mkhize ‘pushed’ for awarding of tender

A WhatsApp message sent by the former minister to Precious Matsoso, former health director-general, on July 15 2019 implies Mkhize had a vested interest in the awarding of the tender to Digital Vibes, according to the report.

“Hi DG. Kindly sort out contractual arrangements. Please ask for preliminary NHI implementation plan and draft communication plan by Friday from each individual as discussed,” read the message.

Attempts to deviate from supply chain process

Former health department acting director-general Dr Anban Pillay is cited as one of the main players who sought to deviate from standard processes to award the contract to Digital Vibes.

The department approached the National Treasury to request approval for deviation from the bidding process, which was declined.

The Treasury recommended the department advertise the tender for a shortened period of 14 days.

After receiving this response, the department — represented by Pillay and chief director: supply chain management Dikeledi Tshabalala — met with the Treasury, where an agreement was reached to appoint a minimum of 10 suppliers who were required to submit quotations.

The department and the Treasury also agreed this process would take 14 days. 

“On September 19 2019, National Treasury replied and stated the reasons provided for the deviation were justifiable. However, it was not clear to it whether the 10 selected suppliers were the only suppliers that had met the required criteria in the central supplier database.”

The report recommends that Pillay be criminally prosecuted for financial misconduct. It says Pillay made numerous material intentional misrepresentations to the Treasury in his request to deviate from the procurement processes. 

“The obtained evidence indicates he committed fraud in this regard,” says the report. 

How Digital Vibes scored the tender

Among the companies which bid for the tender was Brandswell, which achieved a score of 59.2% in the functionality assessment while Digital Vibes scored a 100% score from all members of the technical evaluation committee (TEC). 

Pillay, head of communications in the health department, Popo Maja and Shireen Pardesi were among the members of the evaluation committee.

“Dr Pillay, Mr Maja and Ms Pardesi and the other members of the TEC wilfully, or at least grossly negligently, performed their functions as members of the TEC because they failed to apply the evaluation criteria correctly, fairly and consistently in respect of both potential service providers,” says the report.

Digital Vibes given preferential treatment

Companies bidding for the tender were required to submit at least two reference letters that deal with their previous experience.

Digital Vibes effectively only submitted one reference letter that spoke of the previous relevant experience of the bidder itself. The other purported reference letters dealt with the experience of the manpower, staff and/or consultants Digital Vibes intended to use when performing the work.

The report says the TEC should have disqualified Digital Vibes for failure to submit the required compliant reference letters. 

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