Emotions run high in parliament during Digital Vibes discussion
Tempers flared at parliament’s portfolio committee on health meeting on Friday as it turned into a shouting match between ANC MPs and their opposition counterparts who demanded answers from the health department over the investigation into Digital Vibes.
ANC MPs supported a decision by beleaguered health minister Zweli Mkhize to not appear in parliament following legal advice. Mkhize was told that because he was implicated in the Special Investigating Unit’s (SIU) investigation, he should refrain from making public statements on the matter.
The health department’s director-general (DG) Dr Sandile Buthelezi told parliament he also could not divulge information pertaining to the department’s internal investigation.
Pressure continues to mount on President Cyril Ramaphosa to act against Mkhize, who allegedly benefited from the irregular awarding of a R150m tender to his close associates.
Ramaphosa, who is waiting for the SIU to complete its investigation, this week assured South Africans he was dealing with the matter.
The SIU has said its investigation would be concluded at the end of June.
Earlier Mkhize was a no-show in parliament.
Portfolio committee chair Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo told MPs Mkhize indicated on Thursday evening that he would not be present at the meeting.
“He has been advised that because of the investigation in his department which also involves or touches his name, it is legally not correct that he is the one leading the delegation,” said Dhlomo.
The task to update the committee was delegated to Buthelezi, who was strongly criticised by some MPs for what appears to be a lack of accountability from the health department.
Buthelezi, who logged into the meeting late due to load-shedding, told MPs he was in a predicament.
He said when he was employed by the department in 2020, the auditor-general (AG) flagged several issues that he needed to investigate further, including the Digital Vibes contract.
“We then appointed forensic firms to investigate this and other matters. We received reports from the forensic firms, including the firm that did work on the Digital Vibe contract.
“While that investigation was taking place, the Digital Vibes matter became a matter of media scrutiny, and then the SIU took interest in investigating the matter.”
Buthelezi said he was contacted by the SIU on February 23 and informed them in writing that the department’s investigation was at an advanced stage.
“They said they would continue with their investigation, as per the president’s proclamation. They asked that I link them up with the forensic firm doing the [internal] investigation so they could co-operate to avoid duplication.”
The SIU then collaborated with Ngubane & Co on the investigation.
“Fast forward, the SIU then had to interview people in the department. They also summoned the documents through my office, which I had to give to them, and they held meetings with me individually as the accounting officer. I have had two meetings with the SIU,” he said.
After the internal investigations, the department received the draft and final report from Ngubane & Co. The report was handed to the SIU and Mkhize handed it to Ramaphosa.
“However, in terms of implementing some recommendations in the report, I have been in contact with the SIU and they told me they are still working on the report because it is part of their investigation. Hence we cannot take the internal report as the final report because they have extensive powers, like summoning bank accounts. The forensic investigators did not have that power.”
Buthelezi said he would rather be careful to not make mistakes in implementing the recommendations.
“We have decided to wait for the SIU to complete their report. As the president has mentioned in public and parliament, he is waiting for the report.”
Buthelezi said he would act as soon as the SIU finalises other aspects.
“The minister mentioned publicly that the report does confirm the awarding of the contract was irregular but there are other pieces that are being finalised and then we will be able to fully implement fully the recommendations, not on a piecemeal basis, as we move forward.”
After the matter was reported to the police by the DA this week, Buthelezi said he had been advised by the department’s attorney’s that he should refrain from commenting on the report except to say the matter is in the hands of the SIU.
“It is when we are given the green light from the SIU that we can start moving with internal disciplinary processes.”
Furious MPs refused to accept Buthelezi’s explanation.
The DA’s Siviwe Gwarube said: “While I accept the DG’s explanation that the forensic report now forms part of the SIU report, there are other issues around the awarding of this contract that need to be addressed.”
She said it was not true that the matter was sub judice as it was not before the court of law.
“The rule is no reason for people not to account to the committee. A matter that has been reported to the SIU is not sub judice.”
The ANC’s Tshilidzi Munyai defended his comrades, insisting the matter was sub judice and should not be discussed at length in parliament.
“This will allow the DG to gather information that will enhance their investigation or influence the political hand. I want us to adopt this report of the DG,” he said.
“The minister or ministry cannot report on a matter that is inconclusive. The SIU report will go before the president (Ramaphosa). It is not only the minister who has been reported to the police by the DA, it is also the DG, which means what he says may be used against him in the court of law,” said Munyai.
Phillip van Staden of the Freedom Front Plus disagreed, saying the committee cannot support a report which did not provide answers and clarity on the matter.
He suggested that Dhlomo seek parliament’s legal opinion on the matter.
DA MP Evelyn Wilson said: “The minister and the DG are accountable to us as a portfolio and we must always keep in mind who is accountable to who. We are accountable to the people of SA who elected us and they are entitled as much as anybody else.”
The EFF’s Suzan Thembekwayo and Naledi Chirwa said Mkhize should do the honourable thing and resign.
“I expected him [Buthelezi] to tell us that in the meantime the minister is writing his resignation letter because he is implicated in this issue, and I am wondering why the step-aside principle is not applied here?” said Thembekwayo.
The ANC’s Annah Gela told Thembekwayo “to stay in her lane”.
Chirwa said the right to remain silent only applied in this case.
“This portfolio committee is being rendered useless and if there is anything this committee confirms it is for minister Zweli Mkhize to step aside because he can no longer do his job together with the DG.
“Minister Mkhize is unable to fulfil his constitutional obligation to account to this portfolio committee meeting. He is unable to do media interviews, he is unable to address his constituency. In effect, this has affected all of us who are not involved in corruption and did not pay people millions to take pictures of us doing our jobs.”
She said deputy health minister Joe Phaahle should have been delegated to address the committee.
IFP MP Magdalene Hlengwa also expressed her disappointment, saying: “These are monies of people who are dying out there. We need the truth and nothing else.”
Responding, Buthelezi said he understood MPs had a responsibility to play an oversight role.
“It is not that the members will not receive answers, it is just a matter of time so we do not prejudice the SIU investigation above our own investigation. Like I said, there were irregularities but also we have started administrative processes, like reporting on the irregular expenditure as per the recommendation of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA).
“I want to assure this committee that once we have the final and complete report, we will implement it fully without fear, together with the SIU, but we will leave the criminal issues aside which will take their own course.”
He told MPs the AG’s report was a public document.
“One of the issues raised was overcharging. We had a specific instruction from the SIU it is one of the areas they are investigating, in addition to the irregularity. They are also looking at the charging and they are following the money trail. We have given them a chance to do so.”
Investigators were also investigating staff members who were employed by the department before Buthelezi was appointed DG, he said.
“I am on my knees asking that we wait for the final report from the SIU. We are co-operating. Two days ago, I was in discussions with the SIU and they promised me they are moving as fast as they can. Can we give them time to do their job?”
Dhlomo told MPs a legal opinion on the matter could not be obtained from parliament’s legal team as the team had not been briefed on time.
He agreed with Buthelezi there were legal constraints that needed to be respected.