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

30 Sep 2021

Statement by Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla in response to the release of investigation report into Digital Vibes communication contract

Thanks Programme Director
Greetings to Deputy Minister Dr Dhlomo
Members of the media
Viewers and listeners at home
Good morning

Let me take this opportunity to thank President Cyril Ramaphosa for authorising the publication or release of the much-awaited final report of the Special Investigating Unit into the Department of Health’s award of National Health Insurance media campaign and subsequent COVID-19 communications to Digital Vibes.

The Department has been inundated with public and media enquiries on the implementation of the report findings and recommendations based on the media reports, instead of being based on the actual report by the relevant law enforcement agency, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) in particular.

We have noted the serious allegations against a number of departmental senior officials, notably the Deputy Director General responsible for Health Regulations and Compliance, Dr Anban Pillay, who was the acting Director General at the time the Digital Vibes contract was awarded.

The Department has completed the review of both the Ngubane report and the SIU documentation that was provided earlier regarding the possible misconduct by nine (9) officials. It is also important to indicate that, three (3) out of nine (9) officials mentioned in the report, are not staff members/employees of the Department of Health.

These three officials are employed by other government departments, and their DGs have already been informed of the Department of Health disciplinary process as part of consequence management. This simply means that the National Department of Health has been able to deal directly with the disciplinary process of six (6) officials implicated in this investigation report.

We are anxious to conclude the disciplinary process as a matter of urgency to bring these matters to closure in order to dedicate our time, energy and resources on the country`s response to the COVID-19 pandemic through the vaccination rollout programme so that we can reach as many people as possible to achieve our goal of saving lives.

By the close of business today, all affected six officials in the Department of Health would be served with suspension letters pending the completion of disciplinary hearing process and formalisation of charges. The outstanding disciplinary investigations will require the investigators communicating with the SIU and with a procurement specialist. 

The number of suspended National Health Department officials is therefore now seven (7), including the Director General who is already on precautionary suspension.

The Acting-Director General, Dr Nicholas Crisp, has written to the DGs of GCIS and the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD), together with the CEO of the Government Printing Works, where the other three (3) officials mentioned in the SIU report, are working, to inform them of the actions taken by the Department of Health.

The intention was to explain to them of the Department`s course of action and to offer them opportunity to be part of the same investigation and disciplinary process.

It must be emphasised that disciplinary processes are an employer and employee matter, and in the Public Service are governed by the provisions of the Public Service Act and Regulations.

This report shows that indeed whistle-blowing is one of the effective mechanisms in the fight against fraud and corrupt activities, and it plays a role in encouraging accountability, transparency and high standards of governance in both the private sector and public institutions. 

This blowing of the whistle was taken seriously within the department, and by other institutions, and this stand taken by an individual, and by subsequent witnesses, has brought us to where we are today.

We fully understand the public concerns and interest in this matter because it involves allegations of misappropriation of public funds in the middle of the fight against COVID-19 pandemic, which has so far cost the country substantial unbudgeted funds, as well as people`s lives and livelihoods. Thus, we are committed to study the report’s findings and recommendations fully, and act on the outcomes of the formal disciplinary processes without fear, favour and prejudice.

We are also committed to clean governance, and despite how uncomfortable the report may appear, it will help us tighten controls and ethical practice. We take seriously the evidence gathered by the SIU and have noted the view that there may be scope for criminal charges, though we are also mindful that further investigation needs to unfold before persons are declared guilty by our courts.

This is part of the rule of law. The SIU findings will guide us in looking into the alleged conduct of officials named in the report, and assessing what disciplinary, corrective and preventive interventions are required. We would like South Africans to have confidence in our public health system and in the integrity of the hundreds of thousands of officials in our department and the broader system.

We will address matters of integrity and of consequence management concurrently and will make our decisions known as we go along. We will do so within the framework of the law, the Public Service Code of Ethics and code on disciplinary action, and within the context of natural justice.

In conclusion, we would like to tender our unreserved apology to all South Africans for this unfortunate saga, and we would like to assure the public that we are going to thoroughly and decisively act to ensure nothing is swept under the carpet. We acknowledge the impact of this on the image of the Department and public health system to provide quality health care services. 

I thank you