The Zweli Mkhize matter has ominous implications for both the health minister and the ANC, particularly how the party wrestles the apparent moral dyslexia within it as it involuntarily slides into it the age of consequence, writes Tebogo Khaas.
Embattled health minister Zweli Mkhize has managed to evade legal and political accountability throughout his political career. But that might be about to change — with the newest sign comes through a damning application filed by the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) at the Special Tribunal.
The SIU wants the tribunal to void and set aside the irregular and unlawful multimillion contract awarded to Digital Vibes, a company indirectly owned by Mkhize's close associate, Tahera Mather. And although the matter directly addresses Mkhize and his alleged co-conspirators, it has ominous implications for him and the ANC, particularly how the party wrestles the apparent moral dyslexia within it as it involuntarily slides into it the age of consequence.
Let me explain. The glue of treachery and deceit that has helped keep the veneer of unity in the ANC together post its last national conference is fast coming unstuck. And there's nothing the ANC can do to mitigate the extraneous forces unmasking it and its venal leaders.
A torrent of new revelations is filling the picture of Mkhize's moral rectitude. The SIU has painted a montage of how Mkhize used and abused his authority as health minister – amid a deadly pandemic – to pilfer scarce public funds. But the disclosures may serve only to underscore how much remains unknown about how Mkhize barrelled through constitutionally entrenched limits on the exercise of public power as his political star rose post-1994.
In its application, the SIU alleges that Mkhize "deliberately ignored a Cabinet decision" that mandated "[Government Communications Information System] GCIS would be responsible for the rollout of the [National Health Insurance] NHI communication strategy."
When Mkhize allegedly couldn't get one of his close political allies Mather onboarded as a consultant in his department - ostensibly for the purpose of conceptualising and implementation of this strategy - Mkhize assiduously interfered and influenced the appointment of Digital Vibes as contractors.
So little has been left unpainted in the ensuing public discourse about Mkhize's rapacious greed, plunder and callousness while, ironically, serving as health minister in the middle of a pandemic. Suffice to add, though, that much still remains to be uncovered about the ANC's apparent Teflon don and, arguably, merchant of death. The evidence already available shows that Mkhize's diabolical determination to use his executive authority to benefit himself and his allies had collateral consequences for the performances of provincial health departments in their respective communities' hour of need.
The massive corruption in the procurement of personal protection equipment and temporary Covid-19 field facilities (which mostly remain fallow) in some provinces could likely have been fuelled by a suspicion that some culprits may have had kompromat on Mkhize.
Take Royal Bhaca Projects, for instance, a company that curiously seems to play in diverse economic sectors like PPE manufacturing and Public Relations. This company, owned by the late husband of suspended presidential spokesperson Khusela Diko, has been ensnared in Mkhize's "departmental communication strategy" scandal, Gauteng and other provincial health departments' PPE procurement corruption. With the GCIS reporting into the Presidency, co-opting Diko into Mkhize's corrupt scheme would have been a no-brainer as she could theoretically help smother or manage any potential complaints raised by a sidelined and aggrieved GCIS. These revelations are likely to pile on Diko's current woes and render her continued employment in the Presidency completely untenable.
The plundemic in provincial health departments in the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and Limpopo happened at a scale and with, literally, deadly consequences for healthcare workers and users of public healthcare services. Healthcare workers were compelled to work with limited supplies of PPEs and in unbearable conditions while, in many instances, desperate patients struggled to receive life-saving care from ill-equipped healthcare facilities. Meanwhile, Mkhize would have been spending some of the crucial moments scheming methods to pilfer funds that could have helped ease the burden on the public health system.
The steady flow of discoveries over the past few years has not only been damning but also offered a window on the moral proclivities of Mkhize. These cast a shadow on his suitability to serve in any public representative capacity.
From allegations of hatching unlawful schemes to fund incarcerated former president Jacob Zuma's legal skirmishes while Mkhize was an MEC in KZN, to pressuring companies doing business with state owned entities to donate funds to the ANC while he was treasurer general of the governing party, Mkhize has demonstrated a unique disposition towards moral bankruptcy and criminal wrongdoing second only to Zuma's.
The revelation of the Digital Vibes corruption, in particular, has triggered a uniform reaction among many who have most closely tracked Mkhize's ethical and legal record: If egregious corruption in a program this consequential in the survival of a nation is surfacing only after a few years as a cabinet minister, there is likely much more that remains undiscovered.
Covered only in a fig leaf of his political birthright and attendant entitlement, Mkhize's son Dedani - who has been fingered as his bagman - has been left obfuscating his way through the saga while his dad remains as silent as a cloistered nun since the scandal came to light. Sadly, Mkhize's ego, recalcitrance and petulant conduct seem to be preventing him from falling on his axe, and save Ramaphosa from the invidious position he finds himself in.
A merchant of death?
There is no gainsaying that, wittingly or unwittingly, Mkhize launched a systemic assault on our temple of constitutionalism, desecrated his Hippocratic Oath and should be held morally and legally culpable for the unnecessary deaths of the victims of his greed and violation of the dual oaths he was sworn to uphold. This, arguably, makes Mkhize a merchant of death.
There's general consensus that for the ANC to reinvent itself and remain relevant, it needs to deal with its demons. It needs to confront its corrupt past and present, and to simply sweep it under the rug will result in long-term, ongoing problems.
The Zondo Commission has forced the ANC to take a serious look in the mirror. To secure his and the ANC's future, Ramaphosa must act with urgency, but not in haste, against Mkhize and anyone whose conduct is incongruent with his stated ethos of ethical leadership. That demands more systematic processes and resolve, a hallmark of Ramaphosa's leadership qualities. For, unethical and criminal conduct without consequences render the rule of law inconsequential.
As best as one can tell, Mkhize co-opted some of the top officials in his department and his acolytes to advance his political and personal ambitions. Mather, her niece Naadhira Mitha, and other key figures ensnared in this orgy of malfeasance worked on Mkhize's unsuccessful #Unity ANC presidential campaign. The cynic in me suspects that Mkhize was disturbed by a dutiful whistleblower while unlawfully cobbling together a financial war chest for a second bite at an ANC presidential run. How else would one explain the central roles played by his erstwhile ANC presidential election staffers in the massive corruption and money laundering scheme they devised?
Squandered political life
Although Mkhize is unlikely to rejoin Ramaphosa's cabinet, we cannot ignore or simply move past his egregious abuses without addressing the vulnerabilities in the system that he exploited. And that means Ramaphosa must implement guardrails we thought were sacrosanct in his cabinet appointments: persons of unimpeachable integrity. Of course, Ramaphosa can respond only to the conduct that is known. Now that he knows about Mkhize, the axe must fall. Failure to do so would leave public resources perpetually falling prey to an unscrupulous executive while his credibility as a leader gets compromised. While it's debatable whether disparate investigations, proceeding on multiple tracks and operating under divergent rules, are desirable and/or would provide a comprehensive picture of how Mkhize used, and potentially misused, his authority during all his years in public office, Mkhize's comeuppance should send shivers down bent ANC politicians' spines.
To borrow from Ernest Hemingway, it seems that Mkhize's insatiable greed, ambitions for higher office, and loss of scruples happened gradually, and then suddenly.
This scandal is just but one chapter in what is turning out to be an epic doomsday book of Mkhize's squandered political life. The tragedy is that this book need never have been written. As he meditates in his newfound monastic existence, Mkhize will surely reckon with the fact that the political shield he once commanded has ebbed away, and there'll be no cavalry on its way to save him from his right royal mess.
- Tebogo Khaas is an independent political commentator and analyst. Follow him on Twitter @tebogokhaas.
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