Pretoria, South Africa, June 9 – South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday placed the country’s health minister on “special leave” over alleged links to a corruption scandal involving coronavirus communications funding.
Zweli Mkhize, widely acclaimed for his handling of the pandemic, took a hit last month after graft investigators opened a probe into two of his close aides.
The pair — Mkhize’s former spokeswoman and his ex-personal assistant — are accused of pocketing public funds set aside to fund South Africa’s coronavirus response plan.
Around 90 million rand ($6.6 million) were allegedly syphoned off using a front company, Digital Vibes, awarded a 150 million rand tender in March 2020 to handle the health ministry’s communications campaign.
Ramaphosa has “placed Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize on special leave,” the presidency said in a statement.
It said the leave period “will enable the minister to attend to allegations and investigations concerning contracts” between his department and Digital Vibes.
South Africa’s Special Investigating Unit (SIU) is probing the case, one of over 4,000 coronavirus-linked contracts suspiciously awarded since the start of the pandemic.
Revelations about alleged mishandling of coronavirus funds surfaced last year and have since led investigators to believe that billions of rands have fallen into the hands of politically connected companies, sparking public outrage.
The SIU last week said that 63 government officials had so far been handed over for prosecution, while 87 companies will be blacklisted.
Mkhize has previously denied any involvement with Digital Vibes, claiming he had no knowledge of the company or the tender process.
He wrote to the ruling African National Congress party last week to request a meeting of its integrity committee to state his case.
A report on the outcome of the SIU probe, which the minister has vowed to make public, is expected by the end of this month.
Mkhize has been health minister since 2018 and spearheaded South Africa’s campaign against Covid-19.
He gained popularity through his handling of the pandemic and is touted as one of the potential successors to Ramaphosa.
But links to the coronavirus corruption scandals could tarnish his reputation.
Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane will serve as health minister in the interim.