Digital Vibes: ‘Witness may have misled the SIU’
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DURBAN - IN A legal battle to have the Special Investigating Unit’s report reviewed and set aside, former health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has filed court papers that seek to create doubt over evidence provided by the SIU’s key witnesses.
Mkhize has approached the High Court in Johannesburg to set aside the SIU’s damning findings and declare them unconstitutional and unlawful.
Mkhize stands accused of allegedly putting pressure on department officials to award a controversial R150 million tender to Digital Vibes, a company owned by Tahera Mather and Naadhira Mitha, alleged to be friends of Mkhize and his family.
SIU spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said they would respond to the court application.
Mkhize said Dr Precious Matsoso, a former director-general at the Department of Health and a key witness in the SIU investigation, was obstructive before she resigned.
In a supporting affidavit filed by Mkhize’s former chief of staff Ntombifuthi Ndlovu, whom he had worked with at the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, she claimed Matsoso was never introduced to Digital Vibes directors Mitha and Mather at the swearing-in of Cabinet members, as she had stated.
Ndlovu added that as preparations for the swearing-in were ongoing in the room, she and Matsoso were standing in the lobby. Matsoso then asked if they could speak privately, to which she obliged.
“Ms Matsoso informed me that she was very much aware of Dr Mkhize’s views about her, and she therefore wanted to get a sense from me of what his plan of action was in relation to her and her position,” Ndlovu said.
Matsoso advised that it was important to know as she needed to make plans for the future, Ndlovu said.
“I am now shocked to learn that Ms Matsoso has apparently fabricated a false version of events in her affidavit and alleges that I introduced her to Naadhira Mitha, as Dr Mkhize’s PA, and Ms Tahera Mather, as the minister’s strategic communications adviser. This is false and should be rejected,” Ndlovu said.
The environment at the Union Buildings did not permit for pleasantries, but was an official swearing-in of ministers by the president, she said.
“I also could not make such introductions as I was well aware that Dr Mkhize was yet to decide which staff members he was going to transfer to the Department of Health,” Ndlovu said.
Mkhize said documents in the SIU’s possession were simply withheld so that he could be ambushed.
He distanced himself from his “estranged” son, whom the SIU found had benefited millions, saying he first learnt about his “close” relationship with Digital Vibes director Tahera Mather through media reports.
He added that both his wife, Dr May Mashego, and himself were shocked when these allegations surfaced in the media, and they flew to Pietermaritzburg and confronted him on May 30, 2021.
Mkhize said his son admitted to having what was viewed as a close personal relationship with Mather.
“I did not have and continue to have no insight into his personal affairs. Sadly, just like the public, I have had to learn about some of his financial benefits from Ms Mather through the media.”
Mkhize said he did not challenge any finding or process concerning what appears to be irregularities in the appointment of Digital Vibes, as he had personally instituted an investigation into these.
“What I challenge is the improper manner in which the SIU had imputed responsibility to me, by ignoring evidence that did not fit its preconceived conclusions about my alleged involvement in the Digital Vibes appointment,” Mkhize said in his affidavit.
The SIU, in its report, alleged that Mkhize ignored the initial memorandum, titled memo 1, prepared by officials in the department prior to the Cabinet’s decision. The memorandum was later amended and submitted to the joint committees meeting on July 3, 2019, titled memo1A.
In the memorandum, the department indicated that GCIS had been consulted and was ready to roll out the communication strategy.
“After much consideration the Cabinet did not resolve that the GCIS should develop the NHI Communication Strategy. Instead, the responsibility of drafting the strategy was solely given to the Minister of Health. This is documented in the Cabinet resolution of July 10, ‘Witness may have misled the SIU’ Mkhize hits back over Digital Vibes saga 2019,” Mkhize said.
The Cabinet resolution meant the Department of Health was now tasked by the Cabinet to ensure there was a communication strategy.
“I, as the relevant member of the Cabinet, now had the responsibility to ensure that the NHI communication strategy was implemented.”
In his affidavit, Mkhize also noted that, though a large amount, there was nothing “alarming” or “untoward” about the R150 million spent on a communications contract compared with the Health Department’s R60 billion budget.
As grounds for review, he alleged the SIU failed to disclose adverse allegations to afford an opportunity to make representations and to report his answers to the president. He also felt there was a mistake of law – incorrect application of the test for inferences in criminal proceedings and section 24 of the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act.
“I am advised that inferences must be distinguished carefully from conjecture or speculation. Without objective facts from which to infer the fact sought to be established, there can be no inference,” Mkhize said.
The SIU investigated alleged irregularities in a tender contract awarded by the national Department of Health to Digital Vibes. The contract was to conduct media awareness campaigns around the implementation of the NHI and other health-related issues during the Covid-19 pandemic. Following the SIU findings, Mkhize resigned as health minister.
“We have indicated that we are defending the matter, and we cannot speak about it, because the matter is now sub judice,” Kganyago said.
Matsoso did not respond by the time of publication. A media inquiry, text messages and phone calls were sent to her, but she did not respond.