‘I had absolutely no role’: health minister Joe Phaahla on Digital Vibes

30 September 2021 - 18:57
Health minister Joe Phaahla. File photo.
Health minister Joe Phaahla. File photo.
Image: Freddy Mavunda

Health minister Joe Phaahla said on Thursday he did not play any role in either the appointment or the implementation of the Digital Vibes contract.

“It’s not a question of wanting to badmouth other colleagues, but you can read the report and you won’t find anybody who claims that in the process of procurement or in the process of implementation, the deputy minister was consulted. Just refer to the report and you will find that, definitely as the deputy minister, I didn’t have any role, either in the appointment or implementation on the particular contract,” said Phaahla.

The health minister was responding to a question about his role as the deputy minister during the time that he reported to Zweli Mkhize, from 2019 to about seven weeks ago when he was promoted.

“The issues of the appointment of the company, I had absolutely no role,” he said.

Briefing the media earlier, Phaahla, who was flanked by acting director-general Dr Nicholas Crisp and deputy health minister Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, announced that seven officials would be placed on precautionary suspension by the end of Thursday while charges were being formulated.

He clarified that some of the 18 people implicated were not employed by the government.

When he was asked why the department took long to act, Phaahla explained that the suspension of director-general Dr Sandile Buthelezi took place externally because DGs were appointed by the presidency.

“So [after] the referral letter and ... indications of misconduct they went straight to the president’s office, so that process was run from there and that office ... they kept me informed that this is happening. Even the suspension letter of the DG was not signed by myself because it is outside my scope, the president can delegate someone else but not the minister,” he said.

He said the department was only able to act on Thursday because it now had substantial evidence.

On why the department opted to outsource its communication to Digital Vibes when it has capacity within, Phaahla said: “It’s true that we have a communications department, which is where Mr Foster Mohale [department spokesperson] comes from, which is headed by chief director Popo Maja and, as you have seen in the report, is also mentioned as having played a role.”

Phaahla said various functions of the government tried to “make do with what we have internally”.

“But from time to time, depending on the magnitude and the complexity of the task, it is also normal process, as long as you can justify why that particular task has to be outsourced and why you need capacity. That is why you have the Treasury and the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) to guide you,” he said.

He pleaded with the nation not to get sidetracked by the Digital Vibes saga, and said in principle there was nothing wrong with a government seeking capacity externally.

In terms of recovering the money, Phaahla said the SIU would be in a better position to speak authoritatively on the matter. “As a department of health, all that we can do is to take corrective steps internally through the disciplinary processes and through the tightening of the controls.”

But acting director-general Dr Nicholas Crisp added it was not the responsibility of the department to recover the funds, but “it is something we are obviously interested in, so we will co-operate to identify the funds and would like to see it them reallocated back to the department for use in the department”.

On how to prevent this from happening again, Crisp said there were mechanisms preventing these kinds of things from happening, “it’s just that people are sucked into a process, willingly or unwillingly, and then they don’t know how to get themselves out of it.”

Sometimes people do not realise in time that the process is flawed. “The controls are quite tight. It is when people try to take shortcuts in short spaces of time that mistakes get made.”

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