South African investigators said on Tuesday they have opened a probe into alleged plundering of the country’s funds to fight Covid-19 by two close associates of the health minister.
A local media outlet alleged Tahera Mather, a former spokeswoman for Zweli Mkhize, and Naadhira Mitha, his ex-personal assistant, pocketed millions from the health ministry’s budget using a front company.
AFP was unable to contact either woman or their representatives for comment.
Digital Vibes was awarded a 150 million rand (about $11 million) contract to carry out communications functions for the ministry.
Of that, around 90 million rand was channelled to entities set up by Mather and Mitha, as well as to Mather´s immediate family and other suspect third parties, according to Daily Maverick. Neither woman was registered as a director of Digital Vibes, the report said.
The health ministry on Monday called on the media and the public to give it more time after the investigation had “unveiled some glaring irregularities that will certainly have to be responded to”.
The evolving scandal adds to previous revelations that billions of rand meant to fund South Africa’s coronavirus response plan have gone to politically connected companies. As public outrage grows, investigators have opened probes into dozens of firms.
Digital Vibes was contracted by the health department to, among other things, work on the department’s public communications on Covid-19 since March 2020.
The allegations suggest that the procurement process between Digital Vibes and the department “was not entered into in a fair manner,” a spokesman for South Africa’s Special Investigating Unit told AFP.
“We are investigating that process,” Kaizer Kganyago said, adding that this particular inquiry was at an advanced stage and might be concluded by the end of June.
The health ministry pledged to make the final report public in a timely fashion.
Mkhize has spearheaded the country’s campaign against the Covid-19 pandemic, serving as health minister since 2018.
Investigators first revealed in February that around $17 million in coronavirus funds was syphoned off last year through corruption, fraud and inflated prices for protective gear supplied to government hospitals and departments.
At the time, Mkhize, a close ally of President Cyril Ramaphosa, vowed to limit opportunities for fraud — particularly around “contractual issues” in the health department.
South Africa is Africa’s worst virus-hit country, recording more than 1.6 million infections and almost 56,000 deaths. AFP