DURBAN - NATIONAL Department of Health director-general Dr Sandile Buthelezi has defended former health minister Zweli Mkhize’s use of WhatsApp text messages to communicate important departmental decisions.
Mkhize is accused of pressuring former Health Department director-general Precious Matsoso via WhatsApp text messages to award a controversial R150 million contract to Digital Vibes, a company owned by Tahera Mather and Naadhira Mitha, alleged to be friends of Mkhize and his family.
The contract was to conduct media awareness campaigns around the implementation of the National Health Insurance (NHI) and other health-related issues during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In an affidavit, Buthelezi said there was nothing untoward about using texting.
“Nor should it be suggested that it is an attempt to avoid record: it is well known that WhatsApp messages are retained on phones and can be reproduced,” he said.
Buthelezi sent his affidavit to the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) in June 2021, after being asked about Mkhize’s use of WhatsApp text messages.
The affidavit is also part of the documents filed by Mkhize in the High Court in Johannesburg to set aside the SIU’s damning findings and declare them unconstitutional and unlawful.
Buthelezi said that in his year in the department as a director-general, he had personally found that the constant interaction with the minister was by no means just limited to physical meetings or formal letters. It included emails and text messages, and telecons and videocons.
“I also circulate some of the messages sent by the minister to specific officials dealing with those matters, or share them in various departmental WhatsApp groups in order to activate a response and prepare an update for the minister.”
Mkhize came under fire from the SIU, which argued that his use of WhatsApp was improper as he was giving instructions to Matsoso.
The SIU found that: “At best, this conduct on the part of the minister was improper and, at worst, the conduct of the minister was unlawful, as it constituted an interference by the executive authority in the affairs of the administrative authority (of the national Department of Health).”
But Buthelezi said he found WhatsApp texts to be a simple and swift mode of communication that was of great assistance in closing gaps, since the minister spent significant time on the ground in different provinces, engaging with provincial health departments and other stakeholders.
“The minister and I engage with different stakeholders at different times.
In cases where the minister has held meetings that need to be considered and followed up administratively, he normally sends me detailed text messages.
“I also send text messages to the minister to seek guidance on issues,” Buthelezi said.
He added that since his assumption of duties as the director-general, he had never felt as though messages sent were meant to influence departmental decisions.
“I have instead found that they provide me with policy guidance that I require, thus allowing for myself and my departmental officials to attend to the administrative process that must be followed,” he said.
“Many of our communications must be either in the day or early in the morning, when we are without our personal/secretarial assistance. We could not function if we did not do so.”
He said he had standing weekly meetings with the minister, as the accounting officer of the Department of Health.
Mkhize in his affidavit said: “My July 15, 2019 WhatsApp could not have been referring to the Digital Vibes contract, which was only awarded in November last year. The SIU now argues that the ‘only reasonable inference’ in the circumstances is that the communication of the minister was referring to an envisaged contract with Ms (Tahera) Mather (Digital Vibes director).”
He added that this argument further contradicted the WhatsApp text that he sent to Matsoso during the same period, where he specifically requested her to fast-track the appointment of Dr Nicholas Crisp as an NHI consultant in the ministry.
Mkhize said that in his message to Matsoso, he was upfront and disclosed that he had personally engaged with Dr Crisp and that he had indicated his availability to assist with the implementation of the NHI plan.
“I expressly requested the D-G to discuss with Dr Crisp contractual implications and to get his services on a reliable and structured basis. On the contrary, none of the messages between myself and Ms Matsoso make mention of a specific individual or entity to be appointed for NHI communications,” Mkhize said.
Matsoso said: “Insofar as any suggestions or allegations of impropriety on my part are concerned, or of the fabrication of evidence, I deny that such are true. I stand by the evidence I have given.”
She added that she had not seen the papers, and requested inquiries to be directed to the SIU.
SIU spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago previously said they would not comment on the Digital Vibes matter, because it was before a tribunal.
Mkhize has since resigned from his position, and Buthelezi has been placed on precautionary suspension.