Johannesburg – The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) probe into the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) has uncovered that most companies awarded contracts were not accredited or certified to handle or distribute the equipment.
Last year, at least R2 billion went to such companies, but the figure is expected to double if not triple after the completion of the SIU probe.
PPE contracts have drawn the ire of South Africans as politically connected people have been exposed to have made a killing from the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the latest scandal, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has been put on special leave pending an SIU investigation into the R150 million contract awarded to Digital Vibes, a company run by his associates Tahera Mather and Naadhira Mitha.
The owner of the company, Radha Hariram, has in the meantime deposed an affidavit, alleging that Mather and Mitha embezzled funds from the company.
Hariram stated that when she contacted the pair about the scandal, they appointed the services of an attorney and, after numerous consultations, they paid back R9m.
Another high-profile government official to be embroiled in the PPE procurement saga was former Gauteng health MEC Bandile Masuku.
He was dismissed from the provincial executive after the SIU found him to have failed to exercise oversight on the awarding of R125m in PPE contracts to Royal Bhaca Projects.
The company was owned by the late Thandisizwe Diko, who was married to Khusela Diko, who was suspended as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson over the saga.
Masuku and Diko were also suspended from the ANC’s Gauteng provincial executive committee, a decision that has since been overturned by the party’s National Disciplinary Committee (NDC).
Another high-ranking official to be caught up in the PPE storm was ANC chief whip Pemmy Majodina. King Mzimshe Trading, a company owned by Majodina’s son, Mkhonto weSizwe Majodina, reportedly scored a R52 000 contract to supply thermometers to ANC constituency offices.
The Gauteng Education Department is also embroiled in a PPE scandal where it spent R431m on sanitising schools.
As the intensity of the investigations reaches its final stretch, sources close to the matter have told the Sunday Independent that the SIU was shocked at the level of irregular contracts awarded to undeserving companies.
“The amount of corruption and disregard for the processes we witnessed is genuinely unbelievable. Officials disregarded the norms and standards and dished out the contracts as though it was giving candy to school children,” said a source within the SIU speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Medicines and Related Substances Act prohibits companies or individuals from selling medical devices, including PPE, without a licence. Companies need to register with the SA Health Products Authority (SAHPRA).
The organisation is tasked with regulating, monitoring, evaluating, investigating, inspecting and registering all health products.
This includes clinical trials, complementary medicines, medical devices and in-vitro diagnostics.
According to sources within SAHPRA, the suppliers of respiratory masks and infrared thermometers need a licence from the organisation. SAHPRA spokesperson Yuven Gounden said companies supplying PPE to health-care facilities need to be licensed.
Head of SIU, advocate Andy Mothibi, during an interview with the newspaper this week, confirmed that they had unearthed a long list of unlicensed companies being awarded contracts.
“Some companies were registered a few days before Covid-19 hit, and they received contracts. Some of them were car washes. That in itself tells us that those responsible for procurement deliberately overlooked the legal requirements and recklessly awarded these contracts to these non-qualifying companies,” Mothibi said.
He added that by doing so, they committed irregularities.
“In some instances, we found evidence of collusion. Departmental officials colluded with companies that don’t qualify to get contracts. Some of these companies would be required to register with SAHPRA, and in many instances, you will find they are not registered, and you ask why,” he said.
The SIU is expected to release its findings into the procurement of PPE by the end of August.
The unit started investigating the matter in June when it emerged that supply chain management processes relating to procurement were flouted and corrupt dealings picked up.
One of the most glaring pieces of evidence picked up by the unit is government officials awarding contracts to individuals known to them or their families despite their companies never having dealt with medical equipment.
“You can draw the only inference that these companies were just put through and given the contracts irregularly. It was shocking that you could find a non-qualifying company like a car wash being given the work of supplying PPE,” Mothibi said.
He lambasted government officials’ conduct and said their disregard for rules and regulations put the lives of healthcare practitioners and patients at risk by allowing unqualified individuals to handle such sensitive equipment.
“In many instances, these PPEs have a standard you must comply with as a service provider. Some of them have delivery specifications that won’t be suitable for what they are meant for if you don’t deliver them in a particular manner. If you give it to someone without experience, it defeats the purpose and puts those they are meant for at risk of losing their lives due to the pandemic,” he said.