South Africa

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Digital Vibes scandal: The story behind the story

Centre photo: Tahera Mather (left), former health minister Zweli Mkhize (centre) and Naadhira Mitha. (Photo: Facebook) | Scorpio’s award-winning investigative journalists Pauli van Wyk (left) and Pieter-Louis Myburgh (right). (Photos: Leila Dougan)

As news broke on Tuesday that former health minister Zweli Mkhize is challenging the SIU findings into the Digital Vibes scandal, the journalist who broke the story was taking Daily Maverick Insiders on a journey into his investigation.

Pieter-Louis Myburgh, the Scorpio journalist who exposed a dodgy R150-million communications tender that saw Health Minister Zweli Mkhize fired from his post, says he was not altogether surprised when his findings began to take shape.

 

Speaking at a Daily Maverick webinar for Insiders on Tuesday evening, Myburgh reminded viewers that Mkhize had been trailed by whispers of alleged corruption for several years before the Digital Vibes scandal. During Mkhize’s long career, he has occupied various significant positions within both KwaZulu-Natal provincial politics and the ANC, and has had access to significant quantities of money to disburse.

Myburgh said that one of the first “question marks” around Mkhize occurred when his wife, May Mkhize, received a R12-million loan to buy a farm near Pietermaritzburg while Mkhize was the provincial MEC for finance.

As treasurer-general of the ANC, Mkhize was by definition “put in the way of some curious dealings”, Myburgh said. Among them: the Transnet “tall trains” locomotive contract.

Myburgh suggested that the lesson for journalists and the South African public at large is to fight against the national tendency towards short memories for political scandals and keep the dubious pasts of government ministers in mind.  

The investigative journalist explained that the Digital Vibes contract first came to his attention in 2020 when Myburgh was poring over government spending on Covid-19. At that stage, it was listed as around R82-million spent on Covid-19-related communications — which struck him as expensive.

“There wasn’t very much in the way of radio ads, TV ads or billboards at the time,” Myburgh recalled, making him question where all the communications millions were going.

He proceeded to investigate the then unknown Digital Vibes company and turned up some strange details almost at once. The company entrusted with a multimillion-rand communications contract was registered to a residential address in Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal — and Google Street View revealed that the address in question was effectively a building site.

The company’s director was listed as Radha Hariram, but it soon became clear that Hariram was a front for Tahera Mather: a figure familiar to political journalists as Mkhize’s longtime aide.

“The old ‘follow the money’ tenet is really at the heart of investigative journalism,” said Myburgh. 

In this case, following the money — with the aid of financial documents provided by sources — revealed that the bulk of the money paid to Digital Vibes for Covid-19 communications was diverted to the pockets of Mather and her family, and the family of Zweli Mkhize.

Mkhize’s son Dedani got money to help set up a hair salon; Mkhize’s daughter-in-law Sthoko received the cash for an upmarket nail bar.

Myburgh’s investigative reports on the matter have since been vindicated by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), whose probe has mirrored Myburgh’s findings.

“Any sceptical South African is welcome to go and draw the SIU filings,” said Myburgh.

Although Mkhize has now launched a court bid to have the SIU findings set aside on the grounds that the probe amounted to a witch-hunt, Myburgh says his initial impression of Mkhize’s legal challenge is that it is “very broad” and does not address the very detailed accounts of cash flow within the SIU report.

Myburgh is now interested in investigating other aspects of Mkhize’s governance history.

“I’m concerned about what happened at the Department of Health in terms of other contacts when Zweli Mkhize took over,” Myburgh said.

“I’d like to know what else is hiding in the Department of Health finances while he was minister of health.” DM

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All Comments 26

  • It’s pretty certain that he has been corrupt for years and has only been caught now. All respect to investigative journalists who do protect our rights and resources. And shameful that CR thanked him for his previous service: is this naivety or wilful ignorance?

    • Agreed. I’ve also wondered how clean Mkhize actually is…there have been suggestions around him being corrupt for years. Sadly, the ANC has let too many people get away with too much over the years that by now I think there are only a handful that haven’t been involved in dubious activity as some point.

    • Hear hear! Myburgh has done an amazing job of following the money trail. Hopefully SARS are doing the same? Keep up the good work DM,without your tireless efforts we, the taxpayers, would all just be be a bunch of mushrooms – kept in the dark and fed on sh*t!

  • Honestly where would the SA public be without people and organisations like these doing the investigations and reporting. I shudder to think! Excellent outcome and well done to all involved in exposing the rot.

  • So he was totally and pleasantly surprised when at the press briefing his former aide steps out as the event organiser
    The 12 million loan to buy a farm is interesting , who was it from and was it repaid and if so how , quite a hefty amount to pay off at 8% it is 960,000 a year in interest

    • Good questions to which some detailed answers are required.
      I recall the loan being extended by Ithala Bank, the last remaining provincial development banks with any semblance of functionality and purpose beyond financing cadre accumulation, to Mkhize’s wife. This raised eyebrows at the time because (I think) he was the KZN finance MEC with direct oversight – surprise! – over the bank.
      Details are fuzzy but i recall there being a non-payment of one or more of the instalments by Mrs Mkhize, whereafter there was some media coverage which rapidly expired – either suffocated by official denials and a dutiful media (these were the days before aMabungane) and/or overtaken by the shock of the next corruption scandal.
      I’m sure Mr Myburgh will be richly rewarded by some targeted scratching around the entrails of this sordid case. It is likely to reveal the deep roots of Mr Mkhize’s corruption.

    • Great that we have great investigative journalists!
      However, why is it that the money is never recovered, guilty parties never held to account, and continue in their same positions to carry on thieving? Even if in the event that somebody is charged and found guilty they can still hold on to their positions as MP’s and/or ministers?
      What happened to Cyril’s promise in his acceptance speech, that the first thing he would do when he became president would be to have a wealth investigation on elected officials and if found to be living beyond their financial means, they would be investigated?

  • So true, we do have short memories, Mr Myburgh. the only person who seems to be “carrying-the-can”, in the “Three Amigo’s Saga”, is Gaston Savoi, who was an expendable, as Mike Mabuyakhulu and the dear, Peggy Nkonyeni are still free and Peggy is MEC for KZN Transport, Community Safety and Liaison, I believe and there sounds to be a good source of awaiting wanabees in this sector!

      • Apparently Gaston has spent some time in jail but it is stated that evidence was lacking against Mike and Peggy so charges were withdrawn, fancy that! In one source I have read our friend Zweli was the first official to meet Gaston.

        I wonder do some Companies still award “Introducers Fees”?

  • Mr Myburgh might also want to investigate Mr Khize’s links to Mike Mabuyakhulu, former KZN Econ Development MEC, and former Ithala Bank CEO Sipho Shabalala in the Inthaka Holdings scandal.

  • These crooked politicians come off a conveyor belt. They are all the same and so many approved by our gutless president. Thank heavens for these great investigative journalists.

  • I’m so tired of the reporting, in great detail, that billions/trillions of rands have been stolen by authorities and yet nothing happens. Yes, there are commissions, investigations etc. etc. which go on forever and which cost RSA millions of rands but don’t achieve anything.
    The only question that remains: why can’t the stolen money be retrieved? Why are those who are guilty of paying bribes, enablers of inflated tenders be forced to re-imburse their ill-gotten gains?

    What about Ramaphosa’s promise made in his first speech as president that he would be doing a financial audit on all ministers and members of parliament and if they were seen to be living beyond their means, they would be held to account?