SIU report places former acting health DG Anban Pillay at centre of Digital Vibes scandal

The SIU found that Dr Anban Pillay, among others, should be charged for 'financial misconduct' for violating the Public Finance Management Act. File image.
The SIU found that Dr Anban Pillay, among others, should be charged for 'financial misconduct' for violating the Public Finance Management Act. File image.
Image: Robert Tshabalala

The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) has placed former health department acting director-general Dr Anban Pillay at the centre of the Digital Vibes tender scandal, recommending that he be criminally prosecuted over the matter.

This is contained in the SIU report into the health department's controversial R150m  communications tender, submitted to President Cyril Ramaphosa in June.

Ramaphosa released the report on Wednesday amid public pressure to do so, after sitting on it for months.

It shows that the SIU found that Pillay, among others, should be charged for “financial misconduct” for violating the Public Finance Management Act.

The report has also found that other senior officials of the department, such as current director-general Sandile Buthelezi and spokesperson Popo Maja, face disciplinary action for their roles in the saga. Buthelezi was suspended on Sunday.

The report found that Pillay went out of his way to make sure the company was appointed through several attempts, some of which failed, to circumvent supply chain management rules.

He initially attempted to “irregularly” appoint Tahera Mather, former health minister Zweli Mkhize’s close associate who is allegedly the real owner of Digital Vibes, as a communications consultant at the department of health for the National Health Insurance (NHI) system.

She would have been in charge of the same communications campaign that was eventually awarded to Digital Vibes.

This failed, however, because the National Treasury had started limiting and restricting the usage of consultants by state institutions.

When it failed, the unit found, Dr Pillay was among those who then attempted to irregularly appoint Digital Vibes for the 2019 NHI tender by deviating from supply chain management regulations. Pillay attempted to ensure that Digital Vibes was awarded the contract without advertising the tender. The attempt was shot down by the Treasury, which requested the department to advertise the tender.

Pillay then met the Treasury in July 2019, where it was agreed that a minimum of 10 companies should be identified from the central supplier database system and subsequent quotes be obtained from them.

Either ... Dr Pillay knew that Digital Vibes was merely a ‘front’ that was being exploited by Ms Mather, or [he] had an unusual and non-professional relationship with Ms Mather.
SIU report

The list of 10 companies included Digital Vibes. Two of these companies did not exist and six did not respond to the request for quotations as they did not qualify.

This left only two companies – Digital Vibes and Brandswell – as the only eligible candidates submitted to the tender evaluation committee (TEC) that included Dr Pillay.

However, members of the tender evaluation committee undercut Brandswell, which was the most qualified, to the benefit of Digital Vibes whose owner, Mather, had allegedly created a fraudulent profile for it.

According to the SIU, members of the TEC failed to correctly and fairly apply the evaluation criteria, resulting in Brandswell being scored lower than Digital Vibes, even though it was better qualified and had quoted the department at 50% less than Digital Vibes.

“Dr Pillay, Mr Maja and Ms [Shireen] Pardesi and the other members of the TEC wilfully, or at least grossly negligently, performed their functions as members of the TEC, because they failed to apply the evaluation criteria correctly, fairly and consistently in respect of both potential service providers, which effectively resulted in Brandswell being unfairly and incorrectly deemed to not have achieved the minimum threshold of 60% for functionality,” the report reads.

Mkhize later appointed Dr Pillay as the acting director-general and he compiled a letter of appointment for Digital Vibes in November 15, just days after his appointment.

Covid-19 then hit SA and, in his new role as acting director-general, Dr Pillay in March 2020 went on to contact Mather through his private Yahoo e-mail account, asking for a quotation for pamphlets, airtime vouchers, four billboards, radio advertising and television slots over two weeks for a Covid-19 awareness campaign.

He said he knew this was out of the scope of work for which the company had been appointed and that Mather had to send her costing to “us before finalisation so that there is adequate funding available for this communication”.

Mather responded on the same day with a R35m quotation, to which Dr Pillay responded, “your proposal is approved”.

This means Dr Pillay knew that Mather was the real owner of Digital Vibes and, according to the SIU, sent the e-mail from his private e-mail address and not his official one because he “may have been trying to hide his conduct from the [national department of health] or public scrutiny”.

“[Dr Pillay also] sent the e-mail to Ms Mather, who was at all relevant times purportedly only a consultant working at Digital Vibes, and that the request for a quotation was not sent to Digital Vibes or any of the director(s) of Digital Vibes. This indicates either that Dr Pillay knew that Digital Vibes was merely a ‘front’ that was being exploited by Ms Mather, or that Dr Pillay had an unusual and non-professional relationship with Ms Mather,” the report reads.

The SIU has recommended Ramaphosa take action against members of the committee, which included Pillay, Maja, Pardesi, Reginald Ngcobo and Senzeni Ngubane, among others.