South Africa’s health minister has been placed on special leave pending the outcome of an investigation into a corruption scandal related to contracts awarded by his ministry to a company allegedly controlled by his former aides.
The decision by president Cyril Ramaphosa to sideline Zweli Mkhize came as a third wave of Covid-19 threatens the country and the government's long-awaited vaccine programme is rolled out at a desperately slow pace.
As of Tuesday, only 1,433,730 Covid-19 vaccines had been administered in a country of nearly 60 million people since the programme’s rollout began in February.
But growing public outrage over ongoing revelations around Covid-linked government contracts awarded to politically connected companies has forced Mr Ramaphosa to act.
On Wednesday, parliament heard the state’s preferred forensic investigations agency, the Special Investigations Unit, was investigating more than 14 billion rand (€847 million) in Covid-19-related corruption and fraud.
Tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane has been appointed caretaker health minister, but some analysts fear the leadership change at such a challenging time might paralyse the health ministry.
Mr Mkhize denies any wrongdoing and has been given time off to respond to the investigation into the contentious contract worth 150 million rand (€9 million), which investigators found was awarded irregularly to communications firm Digital Vibes.
The company is allegedly controlled by Mr Mkhize's former personal spokeswoman and family friend, Tahera Mather, and his former private secretary, Naadhira Mitha, who were hired as consultants by Digital Vibes after it was first awarded contracts by the department of health in 2019.
It has also emerged that Digital Vibes bought a car for Mr Mkhize’s son, and that one of the minister’s private residences had work done to it that was paid for by the company.
On Tuesday, Mr Mkhize said he was well aware of the public’s disappointment around the scandal, and that his family had agreed to return any money they had received from Digital Vibes.
“The negative discourse has not only had an impact on me, but it is also an impact on my family,” Mr Mkhize told reporters. “But, most of all, it has tainted the teamwork of our government that is led by president Ramaphosa in our continued efforts to fight Covid-19.”
South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has called on Mr Ramaphosa to deal firmly with Mr Mkhize, and it has laid a criminal complaint against the president’s close ally.
Mr Ramaphosa told the National Assembly on Wednesday that he was dealing with the allegations against Mr Mkhize, but he maintained he would wait for the investigations agency to complete its probe before taking further action.