North West health department graft: plot to oust administrator trying to root out corruption and maladministration

North West health department graft: plot to oust administrator trying to root out corruption and maladministration

Several weeks ago, newspaper headlines accused Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla of being involved in a cover-up of corruption in a R1.2-billion tender-rigging scandal and of smothering the report of an investigation into corruption in North West.

However, an investigation by Daily Maverick has gathered evidence that the claims against the minister are baseless and actually connected to an attempt by a “business forum” in North West to smear the former administrator of the North West health department, and stymie her efforts to root out corruption and maladministration in the province.

The background to these allegations is important to understand.

In April 2018, the department was placed under administration in terms of section 100 (1)(b) of the Constitution. This came after years of failing services, medicine stockouts and allegations of corruption. The person appointed as the administrator, Jeanette Hunter, was a deputy director-general in the National Health Department, and an official with extensive experience in managing healthcare services going back 25 years when she started work in the Northern Cape health department in 1998.

From the moment she took over, Hunter says she sought to impose rules and order on the ailing department, where for a long time corrupt officials had ruled the roost and stolen with impunity. However, in late 2019 she became embroiled in a dispute over a R1.2-billion tender for the provision of security services at health facilities throughout the province. After the tender was awarded several bidding companies claimed they had been unfairly disqualified. The matter was taken on review at the high court, where it was set aside by an order of court on 31 July 2020. 

The North West health department, aware of its administrative errors, did not oppose the review. Linked to issues of maladministration in the department, three of its officials, including the chief of supply chain management and the chief financial officer, were suspended.

However, unbeknown to Hunter, an organisation calling itself the Bokone Bophirima Business Forum (BBBF) had seized on the tender dispute (even though it was not one of the bidders) to make a series of allegations of “illegal activities” against Hunter – allegations she says were completely fabricated and lies. 

In June 2020, the BBBF wrote to the then health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, claiming that “she has created a mess of epic proportions” and calling for an investigation into Hunter. They also told the minister they were planning to open a criminal case against her. This was during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa, so, perhaps not surprisingly, their letter went unattended. In the meantime the high court set aside the tender and ordered that it be reissued within six months. 

One would have thought that would be the end of it.

However, in August 2020, an email from the BBBF to the minister asking about the outcomes of the June letter, led to him referring it to the director-general, Dr Sfiso Buthelezi, who passed it on to the national department’s chief director: health sector bargaining, advocate Maile Ngake, asking that it be investigated and a report produced within 10 days. 

Former Prasa board chairperson Sfiso Buthelezi. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Felix Dlangamandla)

Under the supervision of Ngake the investigation took a strange turn. Without explanation its scope was broadened to include what the report predetermined as the “unlawful suspension” of the three officials by Hunter. The only people interviewed were the three suspended officials, while Hunter herself was not informed of the investigation; in fact, although it made a damning finding against her, she was not interviewed.

Report not signed

For reasons that are still not clear, the final report, dated 12 October 2020, was not signed off by Ngake or passed on to the director-general.

In response to our questions, Hunter speculated that Ngake must have been “coerced into fabricating something which he didn’t believe”. This, she suspects, is why he ultimately did not sign off on the report. In August, Ngake was put on precautionary suspension, although the letter setting out the reasons for his suspension (which Daily Maverick has seen) shows it is unrelated to the rogue investigation. 

For nearly three years it was filed away and forgotten, until recently when it was made the subject of a successful Promotion of Access to Information (Paia) application by the now dismissed supply chain management director, Dr Daniel Makhubu, and was also leaked to the media to fuel suggestions that it was a “secret report” into corruption that had been covered up.

Two weeks ago, Phaahla convened a special press conference to rebut the claims made against him. 

Phaahla’s line was that he had not been aware of the report or the investigation. He had been deputy health minister at the time. Only after media allegations did his own internal enquiries come across the unsigned report in a file.

The minister said he also wanted to correct media reports that he had been ordered by the high court to act on the report’s recommendations on pain of imprisonment

“If you read the actual court order, all the court orders is that the minister must tell the court why [the report of the internal investigation] wasn’t signed, and adopt a final position on whether we accept or reject that report” by 26 September 2023. 

“This we have done as required by the Court,” he said.

Misinformation campaign

Based on our investigations, Daily Maverick has unearthed evidence that the recent misinformation campaign is related to the fact that a number of investigations into corruption in the North West health department are now coming to a head, as well as to pending CCMA hearings of two of the three officials who, following hearings, were ultimately dismissed.

Sources have told Daily Maverick that on Monday, 2 October, the former HOD of the Department of Health, Thabo Lekalakala, and Joseph Leshaba, said to be a service provider, were arrested by the Hawks and charged with fraud. 

Days earlier, according to the Taung Daily News, the “former Director-General at the North West Provincial Government (under Premier Supra Mahumapelo), Dr Lydia Sebego and the former Chief Director at North West Department of Health, Vuyo Mbulawa, were also arrested by the Hawks”. 

According to the report: 

“Mbulawa is facing 10 charges of fraud and Mabe is charged with six counts of fraud” in cases which relate to Moses Kotane Hospital in Ledig and Joe Morolong Hospital in Vryburg and fraudulent invoices that “allegedly led to a loss of over R86-million to the department of health”.

In the process of our investigations, we asked several senior doctors in the province whether Hunter might have been involved in corruption as alleged. They considered it highly unlikely. 

In response to questions from Daily Maverick, Hunter said:

  • When she was appointed administrator the North West health department had been riddled with corruption “at all levels” and there had been a sustained campaign to get rid of her as she set about cleaning up the department; and
  • The members of the BBBF were not part of the contested security tender or even a genuine “business forum”. Instead, she described them as a group which behaved as if they were politically connected. Implying that they are involved in extortion, she said they “wanted 30% of every tender without doing anything”. She said that even before the tender dispute they had spread misinformation to try to turn the premier against her.

Letlhogonolo Modise, the chairperson of the BBBF, told the national Health Department investigators: “They have already opened a criminal case against Ms Hunter.” However, Daily Maverick has established that no such criminal case was ever opened. 

Today the BBBF website no longer exists, and an attempt to email Modise through his BBBF address returned “address not found”. According to CIPC records, the BBBF had only been registered in 2020, but is now “in process of deregistration” due to annual returns noncompliance.

Contacted by telephone, Modise confirmed having received our questions, but said he “had been advised by his legal representative not to speak to the media”.

Hunter also raised suspicions over how Dr Makhubu – the now dismissed head of supply chain management, whose successful Paia application brought awareness of the report into the public domain – even knew of the final report, “particularly when its existence was not even known to the Minister and DG”.

In sum, Hunter describes the report as fabricated and “all lies”. Rather than a bona fide investigation (which she claims she would have cooperated with) it was intended to be an instrument by those implicated in corruption and maladministration in the province to try to have her removed. Hunter’s term as administrator ended in 2022 and although there have been some improvements, reports suggest that the department continues to face serious challenges in delivering healthcare to the people of North West. DM