Department’s response to SIU Digital Vibes Report; with Minister & Deputy Minister


01 October 2021

Chairperson: Dr K Jacobs (ANC)


PC Health Media Statement

Report-back by National Department of Health (NDoH) on Digital Vibes

Meeting Summary

Minister Joe Phaahla: Response to release of investigation report into Digital Vibes communication contract
SIU Report on Digital Vibes


In a virtual meeting, the Department briefed the Committee on its plan of action for responding to the report of the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) on the Digital Vibes contracts, which had been released by the President earlier in the week. The report found that the contracts had been awarded improperly, resulting in irregular expenditure of R150 million.

The Department outlined the timeline that had led to the appointment of Digital Vibes and the sequence of events. Part of this included a finding by the Auditor-General and a complaint by a whistleblower, to investigations by the SIU and by a private firm appointed by the Department. The Director-General had been placed on precautionary suspension under presidential authority on 16 September. On 30 September, a further nine government officials implicated in misconduct – including six Department employees – had been suspended. With the SIU and National Prosecuting Authority spearheading possible criminal prosecution and fund recovery efforts, the Department’s primary response would be to institute disciplinary proceedings against implicated officials. The Department had appointed three investigators, who were currently formulating charges against the officials, but the Department could not yet confirm which officials would face charges. It hoped that disciplinary proceedings would commence within ten working days and would be concluded by the end of October.

Members were pleased to receive a comprehensive briefing after several months of asking, without success, for the details of the Digital Vibes investigations. However, opposition parties expressed frustration about the Department’s lack of transparency and resistance to parliamentary questioning in past months. The DA argued that the ANC had shielded senior officials, including former Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, from accountability, through its reluctance in past meetings to subject them to questioning about Digital Vibes. The ANC disagreed with this claim and described it as malicious.

In a lengthy interview with the Minister and Department, Members asked about the timeframe for the disciplinary proceedings and about possible proceedings against Dr Mkhize. They asked about the role of the current Minister in the Digital Vibes contracts, and about other officials who might have concealed their knowledge of wrongdoing. The Committee sought to establish that the Department was prepared, in the short term, to maintain stability and continuity in the functions of the suspended senior officials; and that it had a plan, in the longer term, to prevent similar procurement irregularities. The Committee was also concerned about the effect of the scandal on the Department’s credibility and reputation, which could affect the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out. Finally, Members asked about the cost of the new Vuma vaccination campaign, and about other investigations into corruption in the health sector. 

Meeting report

Agenda and apologies
The Chairperson said that the present meeting had been scheduled following the release of the report of the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) on its investigation into the Digital Vibes contracts. Parliament was currently in recess in the run-up to the local elections on 1 November. The House Chairperson had given the Committee special permission to meet.

The Committee noted an apology from Ms N Chirwa (EFF), who would join the meeting later. 

Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, Deputy Minister of Health, introduced the delegates from the Ministry and the national Department of Health (NDOH).

The Chairperson reminded Members of the rules for virtual meetings of Parliament.

Mr Johannes Kgatla, Parliamentary Liaison Officer, NDOH, said that the Minister was having connectivity problems but would join the meeting shortly.

The Committee considered and adopted its agenda for the meeting. As the Chairperson pointed out, the only item on the agenda was a briefing on NDOH’s plan of action for responding to the SIU report on Digital Vibes.

Opening remarks by the Deputy Minister
Deputy Minister Dhlomo said that the Minister was currently in a low-connectivity area, but he would join the meeting in time to participate in the discussion after the briefing.

Deputy Minister Dhlomo said that NDOH was present to update the Committee on the Digital Vibes matter. The SIU report had been released to NDOH and to the public only two days earlier. Since then, NDOH had considered its own responsibilities in light of the report’s findings. The plan that NDOH would present was certainly not complete, but the briefing would take the Committee through NDOH’s thinking and its actions over the past two days. 

NDOH briefing: Digital Vibes matter
Dr Nicholas Crisp, Acting Director-General, NDOH, presented on behalf of NDOH.

Sequence of events

Dr Crisp outlined the sequence of events that had led to the Digital Vibes contracts and subsequent investigations. Some milestones were:
- Appointment of Digital Vibes on 15 November 2019 to provide communications around NHI;

-Digital Vibes instructed to do COVID-19 related communication on 6 March 2020
- Report by the Auditor-General flagging possible overcharging by Digital Vibes, on 2 October 2020;
- Beginning of internal investigation by Ngubane & Co. in early February 2021;
- Beginning of SIU investigation on 25 February 2021;
- Suspension of Digital Vibes contract on 1 March 2021; 
- Release to NDOH of final Ngubane report on 24 May 2021; and
- Release to NDOH of initial SIU referral report on 5 July 2021.

SIU findings

After investigating the Digital Vibes contracts, the SIU had found that:
- The tender had been irregularly awarded;
- Procurement procedures, National Treasury regulations, and Public Finance Management Act regulations had not been followed; and
- Some officials involved had had conflicts of interest.

The SIU had found irregular expenditure of R150 million, and fruitless and wasteful expenditure of R72 million.

Steps taken to date

To date, the NDOH had:
- On 26 May, issued a letter of demand to Digital Vibes for payment of the funds due to NDOH;
- Supported the SIU in its court application for the recovery of funds; and
- Appointed investigators to investigate and formulate disciplinary charges.

As of 30 September, six NDOH officials and three other officials (who had been involved in the tender evaluation process but were not currently employed by NDOH) had been suspended.

Dr Sandile Buthelezi, Director-General, NDOH, had been placed on precautionary suspension on 16 September, following an investigation by the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Ms Naledi Pandor. Dr Buthelezi’s suspension was handled separately because directors- general were appointed under presidential authority.

Next steps

The next steps were:
- Charge and institute disciplinary proceedings against the implicated officials, where appropriate;
- Pursue recovery of funds, including through the Special Tribunal; and
- Consider potential criminal charges by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), in consultation with the SIU.

Dr Crisp said that the investigating officers appointed by NDOH wished to consult further with the SIU and with public procurement specialists before deciding which disciplinary charges to pursue against the suspended officials. NDOH wanted the disciplinary process to be as swift as possible, especially because several of its officials would remain suspended for the duration of that process.

(See presentation)

Dr Joe Phaahla, Minister of Health, had joined the meeting. He apologised for his connectivity problems – he was in rural KwaZulu-Natal – and indicated that he would participate in the Committee’s discussion.

Disciplinary processes

Mr P Van Staden (FF+) thanked the Chairperson for responding to a letter he had sent a few weeks ago. The letter had been about the Digital Vibes matter and about efforts to have the Presidency release the SIU report. He also thanked Dr Crisp for the comprehensive briefing. It was much better, and more informative, than the previous NDOH briefing on Digital Vibes, which had been presented by Dr Buthelezi.

He said that the FF+ welcomed the suspension of officials implicated in the Digital Vibes matter. The evidence collected by the SIU was “damning.” The relevant officials should not only be subject to a disciplinary process, but should also face immediate criminal charges. He also welcomed Minister Phaahla’s public commitment, on 30 September, to ensure that nothing would be “swept under the rug.” Parliament would hold Minister Phaahla to his word in that regard.

Mr Van Staden asked NDOH to elaborate on how the disciplinary process would be conducted. When would it begin, and how long would it take?

Ms S Gwarube (DA) thanked the Chairperson for speedily calling the current meeting, so that Members could receive a briefing on the SIU report. She thought Dr Crisp’s presentation had been quite informative, and Minister Phaahla had also provided updates on the suspensions in his media briefing of 30 September. 

Ms Gwarube noted that Dr Crisp had outlined some of the steps of the disciplinary process (see slide 9). Ultimately, NDOH’s credibility, and Minister Phaahla’s credibility, were at stake. Suspensions, especially paid suspensions, did not themselves constitute accountability. Real accountability required NDOH to “make an example” of the officials who were responsible for misconduct. What consequence management plans were in place to ensure that those who were guilty of misconduct were removed from their positions and faced accountability?

Ms H Ismail (DA) thanked the Chairperson for calling the meeting – Members had been waiting for the SIU report for a long time. She also asked what consequence management plans were in place to deal with officials who were found guilty of misconduct.

Mr M Sokatsha (ANC) asked when the disciplinary charges would be formulated and presented to the affected officials. How long would it take to formulate the charges? Mr Van Staden had asked when the disciplinary hearings would begin, but charges had to be formulated first. Such disciplinary cases were usually dragged out for a very long time, and he hoped the charges would be formulated very quickly. The implicated officials were receiving their salaries while they stayed at home.

Mr A Shaik Emam (NFP) said that he thought the implicated officials had been suspended with full pay. When would the matter be finalised, so that NDOH could stop paying the salaries of officials who were guilty of wrongdoing?

To the questions about disciplinary action, Minister Phaahla replied that NDOH obviously wanted to deal with the disciplinary process very quickly and decisively. In particular, it wanted to know the outcomes so that it could prepare to replace any officials who were ultimately going to be dismissed. Dr Crisp had explained that the sanctions applied would depend on the severity of the disciplinary committee’s findings (see slide 9). Throughout the process, NDOH had to follow the law, including the provisions of the Public Service Act (PSA), the Labour Relations Act (LRA), and related regulations. However, the Ministry had instructed that the process had to be “very speedy,” and, if there was a delay in the process, it should not be caused by NDOH. As soon as the SIU report had been released, NDOH had moved quickly to appoint investigating officers as prescribed.

He said that he did not expect it to take more than ten days to finalise the charges against the officials. The SIU had already done a lot of the work. In terms of investigating and information-gathering, there was not much to be done – the investigators would just have to verify some facts. After the charges were finalised, the hearings could begin. NDOH would be satisfied if it could conclude the process, without flouting the rules, before the end of October. 

On consequence management plans, he said that NDOH had to follow the legally prescribed procedures, despite its appetite for a speedy conclusion. If it flouted the rules or cut corners, the outcomes would be challenged in the Labour Court, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, the high courts, and so on. That would only result in further delay and further wasted public funds.

He added that the officials had been suspended with full pay because that was legally required. The officials had not been found guilty yet, and their rights were protected in the LRA and elsewhere. For NDOH, the key was to conclude the process speedily but within the constraints of the law.

Dr Crisp confirmed that NDOH wanted the hearings to begin within the next ten days. NDOH had already appointed investigators, who had already submitted a draft charge sheet for the implicated officials. He had gone through the draft charges the day before. The investigators had indicated the issues on which they still wanted to collect additional information – both from the SIU and from procurement specialists – before finalising the charges. NDOH hoped that that would be concluded in the course of the next week. He had already spoken to Adv Andy Mothibi, head of the SIU, about the case, and did not foresee any problems arising from the necessary engagement with the SIU.

He said that the process would follow a prescribed procedure, carried out by the three investigators and the chair of the disciplinary committee. The investigators were appointed by the State Attorney and paid by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. The process should move quickly. However, justice and the law required a reasonable time period – once individuals were charged, they had to be given an opportunity to review the charges and prepare the case for their defence. As Minister Phaahla had said, NDOH hoped to see the process concluded by the end of October.

Ms A Gela (ANC) asked who would formulate the charges against the implicated officials who were not currently employed by NDOH.

In a follow-up, Mr Sokatsha repeated Ms Gela’s question. What would the process be for implicated individuals who were not, or were no longer, NDOH employees? Would they be included in the NDOH charge sheet, or would they be charged by their current employers?

Dr Crisp replied that he had communicated the day before with the accounting officers of the entities that employed those individuals. These were the Department of Agriculture, Land and Rural Development, the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), and the Government Printing Works. He would follow up shortly. He had asked the investigators to help him draft a letter, which would probably be submitted on Monday morning. The letter would explain what NDOH believed the charges to be, and outline the disciplinary process that NDOH intended to follow for its employees. It would invite the other entities to follow the same disciplinary process in respect of their own employees, though the entities were not obliged to do so. The accounting officers had indicated that they thought there would be merit in such an approach, because there was already “continuity of understanding” in respect of the SIU report. The matter would be finalised on Monday, or by Tuesday latest.

Mr Van Staden said that he thought the “million-dollar question” was what actions the Ministry, and perhaps the Presidency, would take against the former Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize.

Minister Phaahla replied that the executive authorities or political heads of departments faced accountability at two levels: there could be political consequences, and there could be criminal consequences. Both were outside the purview of NDOH consequence management processes. The provisions of the LRA and PSA applied only to public servants, and ministers were not public servants. Dr Mkhize had faced political consequences by resigning. The remaining question was criminal consequences, and that was out of the hands of NDOH and the Ministry. The SIU had referred some matters to the NPA, which would decide whether Dr Mkhize was answerable for criminal misconduct.

Failures of Committee oversight

Ms Gwarube said that she would be amiss not to remind Members that, in previous months, some Members had argued that the Committee had to summon and question Dr Mkhize and senior NDOH managers on the Digital Vibes matter. Those Members had been motivated not only by a desire to share the relevant information, but by the fact that it was their constitutional duty to examine the matter – to seek the kind of detailed information that the Committee had finally received in the current meeting. The Committee had to take accountability where it had erred. A number of Members, especially ANC Members, had shielded Dr Mkhize from accountability. They had “blocked” the Committee from meeting with him – for example, by invoking the sub judice rule to argue that it would not be appropriate to discuss the Digital Vibes matter. With the publication of the SIU report, it had become clear that the Committee had failed in its duties, because of the actions of the ANC majority bloc. The Committee had had an opportunity to pose direct questions to Dr Mkhize, but it had not done so. ANC Members ought to “hang their heads in shame” – they had blocked the Committee from seeking accountability, and had failed the people of South Africa.

Mr Sokatsha did not think that ANC Members had “blocked” the reception of a briefing on Digital Vibes. This claim was “malicious.” In the understanding of ANC Members, the SIU had still been investigating the matter. The investigation and the report were now complete, which was why the Committee was now receiving a briefing on it.

Ms Gela agreed with Mr Sokatsha – the ANC had not blocked a meeting between the Committee and Dr Mkhize.

Ms Ismail agreed with Ms Gwarube. The Committee had had an opportunity to ask questions of Dr Mkhize and other senior officials, but those individuals had been protected by ANC Members, who had claimed that the matter was sub judice. At times, Members had had to “fight” with the Committee’s former Chairperson, Deputy Minister Dhlomo, about the need to receive reports from NDOH and Dr Mkhize on the vaccine roll-out and other matters. The Committee had only started meeting regularly with Dr Mkhize after a lot of “nagging” by Members. Before that, the Committee had been “deprived” of information. It had not been given the chance to do effective oversight, and thus to do its job.

Mr T Munyai (ANC) said that the ANC had fulfilled its commitments and obligations. In previous months, NDOH and the former Chairperson, Deputy Minister Dhlomo, had promised that the Committee would be briefed on the SIU investigation once the report was finalised. That had happened. Corruption was not new in South Africa, in either the pre-democratic or post-democratic eras. The ANC and the country were in the most momentous period of upheaval since the dawn of democracy. However, some politicians were using allegations of corruption as “propaganda” and to “grandstand.” Some political parties were “parading as anti-corruption activists,” campaigning around corruption allegations and claiming that the ANC had blocked reports to Parliament. Yet this claim was not true to reality. The SIU report was being used as a weapon to “attack” the ANC. This was “populism,” and Parliament was not the correct platform for political campaigning. The relevant parties would not succeed in tarnishing the ANC’s image.

He welcomed the NDOH briefing. It indicated the urgent practical actions that would be taken. It was difficult for opposition parties to understand, because those parties did not have the responsibility to govern and to hold individuals accountable for alleged corruption. He agreed that there had to be consequence management for any officials found to have engaged in corruption. The names of innocent officials would be cleared. NDOH and the Ministry had to continue to do their work regardless of politicians who “parade in the corners” without understanding the “statecraft” involved in addressing corruption.

Suspension of officials and NDOH capacity

Ms Gwarube said that several senior NDOH managers – among them a Deputy Director-General (DDG) and the Chief Financial Officer – were subject to serious allegations and now to suspension. What contingency plans were in place to ensure that NDOH remained stable and could carry out its work, especially the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out? Ordinary people should not suffer because a few NDOH officials had decided to “steal public money.” An acting Director-General had been appointed, but how would the functions of other suspended officials be fulfilled? How would NDOH ensure that service delivery was not undermined?

Mr Sokatsha noted that six senior NDOH officials had been suspended, although the suspension letters had only been issued the day before. Clearly, their suspension would affect NDOH operations. Were there plans in place to ensure that the day-to-day running of NDOH was not disrupted?

Ms Ismail asked how the suspension of the implicated officials was affecting NDOH operations and service delivery. 

Ms M Sukers (ACDP) said that, because of the recent suspensions, senior NDOH managers were not doing their jobs during a major public health crisis. This must have a huge impact on NDOH. What was being done internally, in terms of stopgap measures to cover the functions of suspended officials? She did not want to hear that one person was going to take on the responsibilities of all six suspended officials. The suspended officials were being paid for jobs that they were not doing, and they were preparing for disciplinary proceedings which would also be paid for with taxpayer money.

Minister Phaahla replied that the stability of NDOH was a priority for him, Dr Crisp, and Deputy Minister Dhlomo. As soon as the direction of events had become clear, they had begun pulling in people who could “double up” on functions. Some people had been shifted from other NDOH entities and divisions – if they usually worked on long-term responsibilities and programmes, they would now be redirected to focus on urgent functions. Urgent functions included the management of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout and the COVID-19 response more generally – although case numbers were currently low, NDOH did expect a resurgence of COVID-19, probably around December. So a number of officials were adjusting their focus to help the national office manage its priorities. One example was NDOH’s efforts to have Ms Jeanette Hunter, DDG: Primary Health Care and Hospital Management Systems, NDOH, return to NDOH from her current posting in the North West.

He said that NDOH was doing its best to “close the gaps” and ensure that key functions did not suffer, so that NDOH could fulfill its responsibility to the public. As he had said, this included redirecting staff capacity. It also involved fast-tracking the filling of vacancies – though, of course, without deviating from legally prescribed appointment procedures.

Dr Crisp added that, in attempting to minimise disruptions to NDOH operations, he had been engaging with all the senior management. Of course, he already belonged to the executive committee, which had met thrice since his appointment as acting Director-General. That week, NDOH was moving into a new office – its IT systems were migrating that weekend. So, on Monday, NDOH would be experiencing something like a rebirth. The senior managers would be going around to monitor operations. He had also met with the labour unions earlier that day, to share what had been happening within NDOH and to exchange views. This was part of trying to build a culture of cooperation to strengthen NDOH.

The Chairperson thanked NDOH and the Ministry for the briefing. He also conveyed the Committee’s gratitude to the President, for initiating the SIU investigation, and to the SIU, for conducting the investigation. The Committed noted the alleged transgressions and NDOH’s plan of action.

The Chairperson asked how NDOH planned to fill the vacancies in its senior and middle management. What was the process, and when would it be completed? NDOH was a very important department, especially since people relied on public health services, so it was critical for there to be stability within NDOH.

Minister Phaahla replied that the Digital Vibes matter had arisen in a period in which there were already existing vacancies within NDOH. NDOH, through its corporate services division, was pushing to ensure that those vacancies could be filled appropriately. Some of the vacancies had already been advertised. However, there were difficulties. For example, perhaps due to low trust in government, NDOH had received barely any applications for one of the senior positions. It had had to re-advertise the position, trying to encourage further applications.

Dr Crisp said that interviews had been arranged for two of the senior vacancies which had already been advertised and shortlisted. Those interviews would be on 5 October and 15 October. Because they were senior positions, he would personally be involved in the panels. Several other senior positions had already been advertised, and he had asked for the shortlisting to be expedited, so that NDOH could strengthen its senior management team.

He concluded that NDOH had a lot of work to do over the next month in rebuilding its core. He had spoken with one of the provinces, which had particularly strong procurement capacity and which had agreed, in principle, to assist NDOH with procurement. 

The Chairperson asked when Ms Hunter would return to her DDG role at NDOH. She was currently administrator at the North West Department of Health.

Minister Phaahla replied that NDOH had already raised the issue of Ms Hunter’s return to the national office with the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who led the inter-ministerial committee. Ms Hunter had been in the North West for more than two years, and a new head had since been appointed to the provincial department. She had completed the handover report to the new head, and NDOH would be following up in the next week to meet with her, the premier, and Minister Dlamini Zuma, and to discuss the handover. He had also received an assurance from Minister Dlamini Zuma that her department would do everything possible to ensure that NDOH could reduce its role in the North West. That would free up more NDOH capacity for the national office.

The Chairperson said that, in general, NDOH should provide the Committee with timelines for the execution of its plan of action. This would influence the Committee’s own timeline when Parliament resumed after the elections.

NDOH transparency and credibility

Mr Van Staden asked whether NDOH or the Ministry would update the public, or at least the Committee, on the outcome of the disciplinary processes. In previous months, the Committee had been “kept in the dark” and had not known what was going on. Could Members now be kept in the loop and receive regular updates?

Dr Crisp replied that NDOH would indeed update the Committee. Minister Phaahla and NDOH had committed to transparency – the public had to be informed about developments in the Digital Vibes matter. The Digital Vibes matter had damaged NDOH’s credibility and brand, so NDOH certainly intended to be very communicative as it attempted to restore its credibility.

Ms Gwarube was also concerned about public perception and “brand damage” as a result of the Digital Vibes matter. Especially now that the SIU report had been published – after months of calls for its publication – had the Digital Vibes scandal affected public perception and uptake of the COVID-19 vaccination programme? If so, what measures were in place to encourage people to get vaccinated despite the “internal turmoil” at NDOH?

Minister Phaahla replied that it was too soon to measure the effect of the Digital Vibes scandal on the vaccination programme, especially because there were many factors that affected vaccine uptake. In past months, vaccine uptake had fluctuated – it tended to pick up when the programme was opened to new sectors, then slump again, and so on. At this point, there was not much room to broaden the programme, because vaccination was already available to all adults. It would be difficult to measure any decline in confidence in NDOH, because it was subjective. NDOH hoped that the Vuma mobilisation campaign that weekend would help to revive people’s interest in the vaccination roll-out.

Dr Crisp added that he and other senior NDOH managers worked very closely with the provincial administrations, who ran the bulk of the vaccination programme. NDOH hoped that the Digital Vibes scandal had not damaged the roll-out. He thanked his colleagues in the provinces and in senior management for rallying to support and stabilise NDOH while it tried to “rebuild,” and to address the immediate consequences of the SIU report, over the next month.

Mr Shaik Emam said that very senior officials – including directors-general and DDGs – had been implicated in the Digital Vibes corruption. The public had to believe that such officials acted in the best interest of the public. Following the publication of the SIU report, how could ordinary citizens be expected to have any trust or confidence in such officials, or in NDOH itself? The resulting questions about objectivity and conflicts of interest opened “a can of worms,” with implications for other issues such as NDOH’s stance on Ivermectin.

Ms Sukers said that the SIU report implied that there was “a culture of impunity” within NDOH and within government more broadly. Given the irregularities alleged in the report, officials seemed to have no fear whatsoever of consequences. This should be worrying for all parliamentarians – it was their job to hold the executive to account. Other Members had highlighted the issues of oversight and accountability. They had also alluded to NDOH’s attitude to parliamentary questions – not only about Digital Vibes, but also about the COVID-19 response in general. She could recall one example from a meeting when NDOH was in the process of acquiring vaccines. The Committee had asked NDOH about strategic sourcing and procurement, and about service-level agreements with vaccine manufacturers and so on. It was clear, in hindsight, that Dr Mkhize had deliberately thrown the Committee “a red herring” in his responses.

She said that within government and the executive, there was “disrespect and disregard” for parliamentary committees. Officials deliberately evaded questions. They indulged in “the theatre of politics,” even when the issue at stake affected millions of South Africans and, because it affected the health of the nation, directly affected the economy. She was recording her dissatisfaction in this meeting because Members had a collective responsibility to ensure that nothing like the Digital Vibes saga ever happened again. For everyone present in the meeting – whether they were public representatives, government officials, or media – South Africa was their country, and it “bleeds on our watch.” She was “sick and tired” of the political theatre, and the disrespect and disregard for public representatives, with which the executive responded to parliamentary questions. She had brought this up in several committees, and she was now conveying it to NDOH directly. She had previously asked about NDOH communications, and had mentioned this during the budget vote speech on 13 May. In that case, her concern had been the promotional messages about COVID-19 in general – it had only been only indirectly related to Digital Vibes. How would the executive respond to Members’ comments about NDOH’s failure to respond properly to parliamentary questions in the past, not only about Digital Vibes but also about other matters?

Vuma vaccination campaign

Ms Gwarube said that the night before, the President had announced the Vuma vaccination campaign. She welcomed the campaign – South Africans had to be encouraged to get vaccinated against COVID-19 – but the Committee needed further details. What was the scope and cost of the campaign, and who would be involved? Complete transparency was required to ensure that this did not become yet another NDOH programme used as a “looting opportunity.” How could NDOH reassure Parliament and ensure transparency?

Ms Ismail also asked how much had been budgeted for the Vuma vaccination campaign. How would NDOH ensure that this budget was used properly, so that Vuma did not become a repetition of the Digital Vibes saga? What reporting mechanisms were in place to ensure transparency around the funds spent on the campaign? It was taxpayer money, and there had to be transparency and accountability.

Minister Phaahla replied that the Vuma campaign was “part and parcel” of NDOH’s vaccination programme – it was not an additional project. Therefore he believed that there was no additional expenditure, although he would ask Dr Crisp to confirm. He was not aware of any request for additional funding from Treasury. Vuma was essentially a mobilisation programme. The President had asked NDOH to organise a specific weekend for leaders in society to work with people on the ground to support healthcare workers, including community healthcare workers, in mobilising people for vaccination. The aim was to inspire leaders to “get on the ground.” This had already been happening organically, as part of ordinary community work, but Vuma consolidated those informal engagements into a focused and concerted effort.

Dr Crisp confirmed that Minister Phaahla was correct. He thought NDOH had reported to the Committee in the past on its demand-generation activities. Those activities were coordinated by NDOH, with a lot of support from GCIS. GCIS’s own internal resources were leveraged, including its connections with the media – radio and television, as well as print media. The media had made many social commitment announcements, which were free – media outlets committed on the basis that they regarded themselves as part of the necessary communication campaign in the public interest.

He said that there were some costs involved. In particular, the Solidarity Fund had supported the printing of materials and signage, and so on. Another donor was DG Murray Trust, which had provided NDOH with technical support in the form of human capacity. The development of the artwork for promotional materials and so on was done internally by NDOH – or, in the case of promotions for specific local vaccination sites, by the provincial departments. The Presidency had been supportive and directly involved. Through the Presidency, every other government department had used its own internal machinery to mobilise and get its own politicians and senior officials involved in the Vuma campaign. NDOH had been extremely fortunate not to have to go out on tender for anything at all in this project.

Knowledge of Digital Vibes irregularities within NDOH

Ms Gwarube said that, in a Committee meeting in August, Minister Phaahla had mentioned an internal investigation by NDOH into the Digital Vibes contracts. How far had that internal investigation gone? How would it dovetail with the NPA and SIU processes?

Minister Phaahla replied that the only internal investigation had been that initiated by Dr Buthelezi and conducted by Ngubane. The Ngubane report had been submitted to the SIU. So there was no parallel investigation – ultimately, everything had been integrated into the SIU investigation and report. That was why, in the past, NDOH had repeatedly told the Committee that it would be able to act once the SIU report was finalised.

Mr Shaik Emam said that he would ask some “unusual” questions. He asked what role Minister Phaahla had had in the Digital Vibes saga. He had been the Deputy Minister at the time. How had these irregularities occurred without being noticed by Minister Phaahla or by anyone else at NDOH? The irregularities had first been noticed by the Auditor-General.

Minister Phaahla replied that he thought NDOH had explained the sequence of events. As Members knew, there was a separation of duties within a government department – the duties of the executive authority were separate from those of the accounting officer. Normally, it was not the business of the executive authority to get involved in the department’s day-to-day procurement – except when a specific matter was flagged, such as by the Auditor-General or by the department’s internal audit committee. Thus, as part of NDOH’s executive authority, he had first become aware of the Digital Vibes matter when it had been flagged by the Auditor-General. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the President had asked the Auditor-General to monitor COVID-19-related funds continuously, instead of waiting for the regular audit reports. In that context, the Auditor-General had flagged the Digital Vibes contracts, alleging overcharging. In response, Dr Buthelezi – the accounting officer at the time – had appointed Ngubane to investigate. So, as he became aware of the Digital Vibes matter through the Auditor-General, he had also been assured that it was being investigated and addressed by Ngubane. The Ngubane report had ultimately raised other irregularities, apart from the initial overcharging issue flagged by the Auditor-General.

There had clearly been failings in respect of internal auditing mechanisms, since the problem had been picked up by the Auditor-General, rather than internally. Shortly afterwards, a whistleblower also approached the SIU. That was why, a few weeks after Ngubane had been appointed, the SIU had sought and received the President’s permission to investigate Digital Vibes further. So these were the three processes by which he had become aware of the Digital Vibes matter – the Auditor-General’s finding, the Ngubane report, and, ultimately, the SIU report.

Mr Shaik Emam asked how much NDOH had already spent on investigating the Digital Vibes contracts, and how much more it expected to spend. This was money that could have been put to other uses, had NDOH had better oversight mechanisms to prevent irregularities from occurring in the first place. Moreover, how much money did NDOH expect to recover from Digital Vibes?

Minister Phaahla replied that he was not sure whether the relevant information about costs was immediately available. NDOH could report back on the cost of the Ngubane investigation. Further costs would be expended on the disciplinary processes, including on the engagement of the investigating presiding officers for that process. NDOH could also report back with estimates of those costs. 

On behalf of Ms Chirwa, Dr S Thembekwayo (EFF) asked whether NDOH and the Ministry had known, in advance of the SIU report, which individuals were under investigation. What proactive steps had been taken to find out whether any NDOH officials were involved, and to ensure that they were held accountable?  

Minister Phaahla replied that, as Dr Crisp had reported in his presentation, the initial finding by the Auditor-General had merely flagged possible overcharging by Digital Vibes. At a later stage, the Ngubane team had flagged serious irregularities in the procurement process, and had named officials who they believed were implicated. Following the finalisation of the Ngubane report, Dr Buthelezi – who had been the Director-General at the time – had attempted to begin disciplinary processes against the officials implicated by that report. Dr Buthelezi had issued letters to some individuals – most of whom had been flagged by the Ngubane report – conveying his intention to suspend them and inviting them to respond. In fact, Members had asked about those letters in past meetings. However, that process had been halted at the SIU’s request. The SIU had asked NDOH not to take any action until it had completed its own comprehensive investigation, because it wanted to avoid any duplication.

Dr Thembekwayo said that page 50 of the SIU report referred to a service-level agreement which allowed Digital Vibes to provide ad hoc services at a pre-determined rate. Page 51 of the report said that payment of R1 847 734 to Digital Vibes had been approved on 18 December 2019, through an NDOH order, NDOH procurement advice, and an NDOH request memorandum. Where had Minister Phaahla been when those transactions were taking place? Could he assure the Committee that he was not somehow implicated in the Digital Vibes matter? What would happen if an official implicated him – would he be prepared to resign?

Minister Phaahla replied that he was not sure what reason Dr Thembekwayo expected him to have for resigning. If Members had information which they believed implicated him or others, they could submit it to the SIU. Although the SIU report had been published, the matter was not totally closed. Therefore any Member, official, or other individual was free to submit any further information – about him or about anybody else – to the SIU.

He repeated that the law separated the responsibilities of the executive authority from the responsibilities of the accounting officer. The same separation was invoked in both the Ngubane report and the SIU report, since the allegation was that Dr Mkhize had overstepped that separation by interfering in the responsibilities of the accounting officer. The executive was not normally aware that something had gone amiss in a procurement process, unless there was a red flag arising from internal or external audits, from Treasury, or from another body.

Mr Shaik Emam asked how many other NDOH officials – whether or not they had been implicated by the SIU report – had been aware of the irregularities in the Digital Vibes contracts. How many had chosen to keep quiet about the irregularities, and how many had reported the irregularities to senior officials who had not properly attended to them?

In a follow-up, Mr Shaik Emam said that although Minister Phaahla invoked the separation between the executive authority and the accounting officer, precisely the crux of the Digital Vibes matter was that an executive authority had been involved. That point notwithstanding, he repeated his question about who at NDOH might have known, directly or indirectly, about irregularities in the Digital Vibes contracts. Had anybody else known about and failed to report the irregularities, thereby allowing them to continue until the Auditor-General flagged them? The contracts had cost the government a lot of money, and officials should account for any knowledge of wrongdoing that they had concealed. 

Minister Phaahla replied that it was necessary to rely on the statements and evidence in the Ngubane and SIU reports. It would be difficult to establish who had been aware of the irregularities by any other method. Members now had access to the report, and he thought they could follow up with the SIU if they believed there were other officials who should have been investigated further or implicated in misconduct.

Reform of NDOH

Mr Shaik Emam asked how the Digital Vibes matter could have progressed to the extent that it did, with Digital Vibes receiving R150 million. Where were NDOH’s internal oversight mechanisms?

Dr Crisp replied that NDOH had an audit and risk committee. It only met several times a year and its meetings were structured by a specific agenda that it had to get through. The committee was well aware of the Digital Vibes matter and had been strengthening its oversight. It was led by an external chairperson, because part of its mandate was to oversee the Director-General – or, in his own case, the acting Director-General.

He said that in the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, the President had asked the Auditor-General to engage in pro-active auditing, instead of relying only on the regular audit at the end of the financial year. NDOH engaged regularly with the Auditor-General – he had been involved in some of those meetings insofar as they concerned the vaccination programme, and there would be many more such meetings in the future. The audits were not regular performance audits – they were preventative, focusing on short-term risk identification and management. Some identified only potential risks; in other cases, there were genuine risks that NDOH had to act to address.

Ms Gela asked how NDOH planned to ensure that challenges like Digital Vibes did not arise again in the future.

Ms Sukers agreed with Ms Gwarube and Ms Ismail about the need for transparency about future NDOH campaigns. There had been many problems with the COVID-19 response, and those had not been addressed. How would the executive ensure that the Digital Vibes saga was never repeated? The Committee did not want an evasive answer. It wanted to know that NDOH had read the report and recognised the gaps that existed in its internal systems. 

Similarly, the Chairperson said that, looking at the SIU report, he asked himself what the Committee could do, in terms of its mandate, to improve oversight. In the same vein, he wanted to know what NDOH would do to ensure that such irregularities would not reoccur.

Minister Phaahla replied that the Digital Vibes matter had revealed serious shortcomings in NDOH’s internal and external auditing and monitoring system. Clearly, NDOH had to look at and improve that system, which it relied on alongside the Auditor-General’s reports. As NDOH’s executive authority, the Ministry received regular reports – usually quarterly or, during the pandemic, more frequently than that. So NDOH had learned from the saga that there were shortcomings in its internal systems, which it would have to monitor even more closely.

He said that NDOH was clearly “seeing the fault lines” illuminated by the SIU report. Of course, NDOH had read the report. At the same time that the President had released the report to the public, the SIU had also given NDOH access to the full file and various annexures. In reading the report, NDOH was already seeing some of the gaps. But it was necessary to study the matter further and more deeply, so NDOH could ensure that it prevented any similar procurement irregularities in the future. 

Ms Sukers asked what NDOH had done to address the impact of the Digital Vibes matter on the culture of NDOH. What change management strategies were being used? Obviously, the scandal had to be “reverberating” within the internal culture of NDOH.

Minister Phaahla replied that, as Members could imagine, the situation had “rocked” NDOH. There was a lot of instability and uncertainty, not least because of the suspension of the Director-General, a DDG, and chief directors. He agreed with Ms Sukers that NDOH would have to look at change management strategies – this was another aspect of maintaining stability at NDOH, apart from ensuring that the suspended officials’ functions were taken over by others.

Ms E Wilson (DA) apologised for joining the meeting late. She was in a rural area with poor connectivity and had been trying to connect for almost an hour. She had missed the NDOH briefing on Digital Vibes. However, she wanted to express her concern about the other ongoing investigations in the health sector. The SIU was submitting reports on its investigations in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. Personal protective equipment (PPE) corruption in Gauteng was also under investigation. This was a critical stage. Unless action was taken very urgently, South Africa’s already frail health system would “collapse completely.”

She asked for Minister Phaahla’s commitment that the SIU reports on the provincial departments would be released and promptly addressed. The investigations implicated many people, and she also wanted him to commit to dealing promptly with those implicated. The current situation could not continue, and Parliament had to know who was involved in misconduct.

Minister Phaahla replied that he was not sure whether he, as a national minister, was entitled to access to those reports. He would seek legal guidance, including from the state law advisers. Judging from the process followed for the Digital Vibes investigation, it seemed likely that the reports would first be sent to the President, who had signed the SIU proclamations. Then the President would probably forward the reports to the relevant premiers, with a directive about the necessary corrective action. After that, he expected that NDOH would be entitled to see the reports, insofar as they concerned health departments. However, he would report back to the Committee with a clearer answer once he had received legal advice.

Deputy Minister Dhlomo thanked Members for acknowledging that the NDOH briefing had been comprehensive, despite the short notice. As Minister Phaahla had mentioned, NDOH had acted quickly – within two days of the release of the SIU report, it had a plan. NDOH also wanted the matter behind it. The plan was a work in progress and, as Minister Phaahla had said, NDOH would report back to the Committee. 

Closing remarks
The Chairperson thanked the delegates from the Ministry and NDOH, as well as Members, who, understanding the urgency of the matter, had been willing to attend a meeting on a Friday night.

He reminded Members that the parliamentary programme resumed on 4 November and had been agreed to. The Committee would be receiving the annual reports of NDOH and its entities, so Members would certainly have the opportunity to receive an update on NDOH’s progress.

The meeting was adjourned.