Comrade BEE: Zweli Mkhize lets the cat out of the bag

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the Health Minister's revealing defence of himself in the Digital Vibes scandal


It was meant to be the match-winning shot. Instead, Mkhize inadvertently scored a spectacular own goal.

“They were comrades, not personal friends.” With these words, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize laid bare the ethical vacuum at the heart of the African National Congress and his own unsuitability, both as a minister and for the position that he covets, the presidency.

Trying to absolve himself from responsibility for what an independent forensic investigation this week described as a “highly irregular” R150m tender awarded to some former aides, Mkhize issued a long exculpatory statement. The nub of it was that although the public’s “outrage, anger, questions, comments, expressions of disappointment and disgust with… this Digital Vibes contract is well justified”, we should all understand that it had nothing to with him.

“The key narrative has been that this contract was awarded to my associates and thus inferring that I may have used influence in the awarding of this contract,” says Mkhize. But it was not so. He had not declared any conflict of interest because he had not identified any conflict of interest. No surprise, since these reprehensible individuals were comrades, not pals. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

He, Mkhize, did not in any way participate in or influence the appointment of Digital Vibes. From his lofty position as Health Minister, he was responsible solely for strategic and executive decisions; at a departmental level the minister is informed of the selection of employees or consultants “only once the whole procurement and administrative process [has] been concluded”.

The day after Mkhize’s statement there came an unusual response from within ANC ministerial ranks. You might take it as a sign of stirrings of moral renewal in the ANC or you may take it as an indication that Mkhize may yet be forced by the ANC to walk a pre-election plank of shame. Whichever it may turn out to be, Mkhize’s “I didn’t know” defence was immediately and brutally demolished by none other than Public Service and Administration Minister Senzo Mchunu.

Responding to media inquiries, Mchunu made it clear that such dodgy dealings in government departments and entities simply couldn’t happen without anyone, including the executive, not knowing. Ministers were responsible for administering their respective departments, said Mchunu, which meant that they could not be absolved simply because they said that they did not know.

“These things won't happen without anyone knowing, I can bet you my last cent. Therefore it is not going to be left alone on the matter,” (sic) Mchunu said.

If Mchunu’s position on the principle of ministerial accountability, the norm in most democracies, were to be implemented in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration, it would bring not only a sea change to the composition of his Cabinet but to every aspect of our society. A defining characteristic of the post-1994 epoch is the erosion in every sphere of South African life of anyone, ever, taking responsibility for anything.

But that would only be a start. At least as difficult to eradicate will be the prevailing ethos in the ANC — so succinctly and damningly articulated by Mkhize — that as long as they’re “comrades” and not “personal friends”, the award of tenders and jobs to the political elite is perfectly okay.

Again, it’s been a process of steady decline. What was initially a perfectly admirable idea, that of a restorative process of Broad-Based Black Economic  Empowerment (B-BBEE), quickly deteriorated to become a racist, exclusionary mechanism, spitefully directed against minorities.

Eventually, B-BBEE was corrupted to what it is today — Comrade-Based Economic Empowerment (C-BEE). It is not an accident that the ANC cherishes such warm fraternal feelings towards Zimbabwe’s ruling thuggery ZANU-PF, which has perfected the criminal conflation of state resources and the party elite.

Mkhize’s impassioned justifications — conveniently, he pleads with the media and public not to prejudge, so as to give the department and the various investigators “more time” to get to the truth — ring thin and tinny on many aspects of the scandal.

It beggars belief that the main figures in Digital Vibes were mere party associates of Mkhize. One had worked in Mkhize’s foundation; three were leading figures in his #Unity campaign at the 2017 ANC leadership conference; one was a private secretary in his office when he was Minister of Co-operative Governance. (By another amazing coincidence, a Digital Vibes-controlled entity also managed to snag a lucrative tender with that department, while Mkhize was the minister.)

These are people who travelled with Mkhize on official business, both locally and internationally. Selfies with Mkhize appeared on their Facebook pages and his. Daily Maverick’s sources identify at least one of them as being a “family friend” of Mkhize. And, irrefutably, on social media Mkhize affectionately calls the one “auntie” while she calls him “darling boy”.

It further beggars belief that an ersatz company —no track record and a “managing director” who doubles as a petrol pump attendant at a seedy Stanger garage — could win a R150m tender without there being corruption at stratospheric levels within the Health Department. What were the criteria? B-BBEE? Or C-BEE?

Investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh, who first broke the story, has copies of invoices showing that the department paid Digital Vibes to write press statements and speeches for the minister. The minister said they never wrote a word for him.

The Health Department also paid R3.65m for “organising” Mkhize’s appearance on a SABC news bulletin, to announce the second wave of the Covid pandemic.

It is difficult to understand why, except as a fraudulent ploy, a public relations company would be paid top dollar to arrange the appearance of a Cabinet minister on the public broadcaster. One would have thought that even the SABC would comprehend that there was some news value in the declaration of a deepening national medical emergency.

In any case, the SABC incident happened in December 2020. By that stage, according to Mkhize’s statement, he and his top officials had already been warned by the Auditor-General that they should “interrogate the rates being charged by Digital Vibes”.

All that said, it seems most unlikely to me that Mkhize will be found to have benefited monetarily from the Digital Vibes scam.

This is the man who for five years until 2017 was Treasurer-General of the ANC — the comptroller of vast flows of murky money, including from the Gupta state looters. If he were dishonest, he would have fished lustily in this ocean, not now cast his line into the Digital Vibes garden pond.

The problem with Mkhize seems to be not a failure of personal morality but political morality. Like most of the ANC leadership, he probably sees nothing wrong in being a comrade Blesser. C-BEE, after all, is just a refinement of B-BBEE.

Whatever next happens next to Mkhize, as is the case with any of the many allegations of high-level jiggery-pokery in the ANC, it will have little to do with justice as it’s conventionally understood. Mkhize’s fate is a matter of political expediency. It depends on how his axing would play into Ramaphosa’s endless juggling of competing ANC factions.

On the downside, Mkhize is from KwaZulu-Natal, the stomping ground of Ramaphosa’s nemesis, Jacob Zuma. On the upside, he is from KwaZulu-Natal the stomping ground of Ramaphosa’s nemesis, Jacob Zuma.

One must concede that there is an infinitesimal chance that as one of the designated rays of sunshine in Ramaphosa’s New Dawn, Mkhize might just follow the honourable course Mchunu outlined — accept the responsibilities and burdens imposed by high public office. That would, of course, mean resigning.

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