Johannesburg - The Digital Vibes corruption scandal involving millions of rand that was paid to Health Minister Zweli Mkhize’s close allies has taken an unexpected turn, with the company’s director and owner laying charges of fraud and embezzlement against Tahera Mather and Naadhira Mitha.
Digital Vibes was awarded a R150m contract by the Department of Health for communications work.
The deal had initially focused on the National Health Insurance scheme but was later expanded last year to include Covid-19 communications work for the department.
Digital Vibes is accused of inflating prices and doing work that the department could do internally. It was also alleged that a house owned by Mkhize’s family trust had renovations financed by the company and that it also purchased a vehicle for Mkhize’s son, Dedani.
In an affidavit deposed by Radha Hariram on May 7, 2021, at the Norwood police station, she talks about how she has known the pair for many years.
Hariram said she enlisted the services of Mather and Mitha due to the volume of work that was required. They continued working together while she was in charge of the financial aspects of the business.
“During March 2020, I took ill and was unable to work. I entrusted Naadhira with the banking pins and passwords and asked her to take care of debtors, creditors and the financial business until I was fit enough to resume my duties. This decision was based on my trust for Naadhira and the reassurance I received from Tahera in respect of trusting Naadhira,” she wrote.
That decision would, however, come back to haunt her. It was during this period where the pair allegedly embezzled over R80 million from the company. Hariram said she first suspected wrongdoing when a story broke in the media in February regarding the contract.
She said she confronted the pair, but she was assured “all was well and the allegations were baseless”.
That was until the involvement of the Special Investigating Unit (SIU).
“This spooked me. I instructed SP Attorneys, Sumen Pillay, to represent Digital Vibes and me regarding the media, the allegations, and the SIU. At this juncture, Sumen suggested that we dig a bit deeper to get the factual position to better deal with the matter,” Hariram wrote. Forensic experts were brought in and uncovered a litany of transactions that Hariram claims not to know.
“Unbeknownst to me and without my consent, Naadhira and Tahera had embezzled and stolen tens of millions of rand from Digital Vibes and effectively me. Their modus operandi was to make payments from Digital Vibes to third parties as if the payments were for services and value when in fact it was not,” she alleged.
Some of the transactions included R15m to Strategeewhiz linked to Mitha, R1m to F Seedar – Mather’s sister, R7m to WT Graphics – Mather’s son, S Mather Consulting belonging to Mather’s daughter, R5m to Tammy Tailor Nails and R10m to Mateta Projects.
“These transactions were done unlawfully and without my knowledge or consent and constitute theft and fraud. Much of the money was paid to family members and associates of both Tahera and Naadhira without them conducting any work or providing any services to Digital Vibes,” she wrote.
Hariram further stated that when she contacted the pair, they appointed the services of an attorney and, after numerous consultations, they paid back R9m.
When contacted for comment, Mitha said she is not aware of the affidavit, and she would have to find out about it and get back to us. Mather’s phone was off and messages sent were not responded to.
Police spokesperson Kay Makhubela yesterday confirmed that a case of fraud was opened at Norwood police station.
Sources within the SIU have indicated that as the investigations unravel, more people are coming forward and providing information relating to the case.
SIU spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago this week declined to divulge any more information on the case. He, however, indicated they were at an advanced stage and hoped to brief President Cyril Ramaphosa soon.
“We are still investigating the matter and hope to have it wrapped up by the end of June,” Kganyago said.
Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on Mkhize to go, with some speculating that he was considering quitting as he was yesterday expected to face the ANC’s Integrity Commission over the Digital Vibes scandal. But both Integrity Commission chairperson George Mashamba and party spokesperson Pule Mabe could not be reached for comment.
This week Ramaphosa insisted that he was waiting for the SIU report, before he could act against Mkhize.
However, political parties have called for Mkhize and his director-general Dr Sandile Buthelezi to be dealt with after the pair failed to brief Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Health on Digital Vibes on Friday.
Mkhize is said to have received legal advice not to take part in the meeting. Meanwhile, some MPs said having the matter reported to law enforcement authorities does not necessarily make it sub judice.
UDM leader Bantu Holomisa said both Mkhize and his director-general should be put on leave pending the investigation.
Freedom Front Plus MP Phillip van Staden urged Mkhize to brief the committee if he had nothing to hide.
“Minister Mkhize must come to the health portfolio committee to account. When he was supposed to appear on Friday he said he received legal advice that he must not go before the committee, no the case is not before the court.
“The minister must be open about the matter, only he knows information as to what happened, if he has nothing to hide he must come to the open,” said Van Staden.
The DA this week opened a criminal case against Mkhize and Buthelezi at the Cape Town police station, while IFP MP and national spokesperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa said the party intends to wait for the SIU to conclude its probe and issue a report.
Cope spokesperson Dennis Bloem called on Ramaphosa to show his true colours and fire Mkhize. “He does not deserve to be trusted in that position,” said Bloem.
“This corruption is not happening under former president Jacob Zuma’s administration but happening under Ramaphosa who has promised the people of the country during his campaign for president, that corruption will be a thing of the past, and that he will not tolerate such things in his administration
“For the past week Ramaphosa has been sitting with Mkhize, who has been implicated in serious allegations of corruption, and the President does not have the will to fire him,” argued Bloem, adding that the president is facing a serious dilemma because there is an indication that more of his ministers will be exposed with serious corruption, and in fact some of them were already named at the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture.
“It is very clear that there is no political will from Ramaphosa, because he himself is compromised. He does not know where to start. It is possible that the entire leadership will be sent to jail. He must fire Mkhize. He does not deserve to be trusted in that position”.
Ramaphosa has also come under scrutiny for the stance he has taken on the matter.
Mkhize’s woes also increased this week when Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane indicated she would be laying charges against the minister for being in contempt of her office.
The public protector’s spokesperson, Oupa Segalwe, said the proceedings resulted from Mkhize repeatedly ignoring a subpoena to appear before Mkhwebane concerning an investigation into allegations that the department had failed to implement recommendations from the clinical associates national task team in 2017.
A complaint had been laid against Mkhize by Sanele Ngcobo, a clinical associate and the general secretary of the Professional Association of Clinical Associates of South Africa, over the department’s failure to implement the task team’s recommendations.
Segalwe said Mkhize had failed to honour appearances in February, March and April this year.
“He failed to present himself on all three occasions, with his office advising each time that he was unavailable,” Segalwe said.
Health Ministry spokesperson Dr Lwazi Manzi could not be reached for comment last night.