Northern Cape government yet to decide on fate of senior health officials facing fraud charges

Northern Cape government yet to decide on fate of senior health officials facing fraud chargesWaiting for healthcare at Augrabies Health Care Clinic outside Kakamas. PHOTO: Thom Pierce/Spotlight
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The fate of two of the Northern Cape Health Department’s top officials, who were arrested for fraud and corruption, remains uncertain despite calls from some opposition parties and trade unions to suspend them immediately.

Acting Head of Department for Health in the Northern Cape Dr Dion Theys (as we explain lower down his current position is unclear) and the department’s chief financial officer Daniel Gaborone appeared in the Kimberly Magistrate’s Court this week. The charges relate to allegations around the issuing of a personal protective equipment (PPE) tender valued at R43 million without following the correct procurement procedures last year.

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Spokesperson for the Northern Cape Department of Health Lebogang Majaha said the department is still managing the internal process on the way forward before it decides on Theys and Gaborone’s future in the department. “We will share communication as soon as we have come to a conclusion regarding this matter, Majaha told Spotlight.

According to the Hawks spokesperson in the province Nomthandazo Mnisi, both Theys and Gaborone are charged with fraud and contravening the Public Finance Management Act. The Act, among others, provides for certain requirements that public officials must follow in managing public finances in national and provincial departments. It aims to secure transparency, accountability, and sound financial management in government and public institutions.

Mnisi said a thorough probe by the Hawks’ Serious Corruption Investigation team led to the arrests. She said the accused were both granted bail of R20 000 each and will appear in court again on 27 September.

Arrests welcomed

Some opposition parties and trade unions are calling for the immediate suspension of Theys and Gaborone.

Spokesperson for the Democratic Alliance in the Northern Cape, Isak Fritz told Spotlight they do not yet have information on the companies implicated in this matter. “But what we do know is that these two officials are not new to corruption in the department, and that is why we are calling for their immediate suspension,” Fritz said.

Theys was arrested and appeared in court in March this year on a different charge relating to lease agreements concluded in 2014 for nursing students’ accommodation to the value of R96 million. Theys was granted bail of R30 000 at the time.

“This is not even a matter to be discussed anymore,” says Fritz. “Theys is being arrested by the Hawks for the second time in less than six months and we cannot accept that so this matter has to be taken very [seriously].”

According to Fritz, Gaborone is also not new to controversy. “He was previously implicated in a case where he procured water purifiers and oxygen machines for the Department of Health facilities in the province at inflated prices in return for [a] kickback in 2018,” said Fritz.

Attempts to get comment from Theys and Gaborone were unsuccessful.

Northern Cape's cuMr Maruping Lekwene, Health MEC (right) and the head of the provincial health department Dr Dion Theys. PHOTO: NC Health/Twitter
Mr Maruping Lekwene, Health MEC (right) and the acting head of the provincial health department Dr Dion Theys earlier. PHOTO: NC Health/Twitter

Fritz insists that the health department must take full responsibility for wrongdoing by instituting its own internal disciplinary proceedings and remove any further risk posed to the institution by individuals such as Theys and Gaborone. “Now that Dr Theys and Gaborone are implicated in yet another case, we cannot accept that either of them continues to operate from positions of influence within the department of health,” said Fritz.

Provincial leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Aubrey Baartman says the EFF is not surprised by the arrests. “We have been expecting it, so it is highly welcomed. As the EFF, we are still expecting more arrests in the province, so we are urging all the corrupt officials to come clean,” he said.

The Freedom Front Plus deputy chair in the province Danie Coetzee also welcomed the arrest. “The investigation has been ongoing for a while now, so we are glad,” he said. Coetzee said ultimately it is the most vulnerable people who suffer because of mismanagement.

According to Nehawu provincial secretary Moleme Moleme, the union several times asked the department to suspend Theys. “It has been our plea [to] the department since his first arrest that took place earlier this year. We have been saying that it cannot be correct that Dr Theys continues to hold his senior position as a provincial medical manager even after he has been implicated in tender corruption. Instead, we have noted that after his March arrest, he was never held responsible for his actions but was rather given back his senior management position. All of us are public servants and we must be held accountable for our wrong actions. All corrupt officials must be suspended,” he said.

Concerns over vacancies

In May this year, Northern Cape premier Dr Zamani Saul had to account to MPs in Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Public Service and Administration on the Head of Department vacancy in health and three other departments. Saul then acknowledged to MPs that the province “could have done much better in filling the vacancies”. He said the province advertised the positions in August last year already.

According to the Public Service Act, however, these vacant posts must be filled within six months and someone cannot be acting for more than a year.

Saul acknowledged that having people in an acting position is not ideal but the acting heads of department (Theys included) had the skills and competencies required for the job and that this in the interim “created and added value” to the departments. He undertook to submit a report at the end of this month (August) to the committee to show the progress they have made in filling the vacancies.

When some MPs raised concerns over the health department operating without a permanent head of department at such a crucial time, Saul said those “appointed in acting positions in the province were qualified for these positions and were quite seasoned bureaucrats who were really assisting the department to hold the fort”. According to him, there were no visible signs of instability and poor performance due to the people who were acting.

This was about two months after Theys’ first arrest.

Attempts to find out if the position has since been filled and what, if any, action was taken against Theys, sent Spotlight down a rabbit hole with one official saying Theys is still the acting head of department, and opposition parties saying they understand he was redeployed to his former position of provincial medical manager. If this is the case, it is not clear when it happened. Saul also dodged this question in Parliament. Spotlight understands another head of department, Riaan Strydom, has been appointed, but on the department’s social media pages, Strydom is referred to as ‘acting HOD’. The last permanent head of the provincial health department was Theys’ predecessor Dr Steven Jonkers, also no stranger to controversy. He was reportedly implicated in fraud and corruption at the Department of Transport, Safety, and Liaison a few years ago.

Financial management transgressions flagged

The heads of departments are the accounting officers responsible for the administration of the department. During Theys’ time in office, the auditor-general flagged various irregularities with personal protective equipment (PPE) in her first and second special report on COVID-19 spending.

The report, among others, notes that the province (health department deviated from the emergency procurement procedures for “one transaction to procure goods to the value of R8,04 million in the Northern Cape”. The AG said they could not find “any evidence that the deviations had been approved by the accounting officer”.

“Also in the Northern Cape, the accounting officer had signed off a generic deviation on 24 March 2020 that did not specify any time period and was not considered per specific transaction, as required. The deviation, therefore, did not justify the matter of emergency for the four suppliers to the value of R60,73 million,” the AG found.

It was found the department awarded a contract to a supplier who, among others, “was not a bona fide PPE supplier, and its CIPC (Companies and Intellectual Properties Commission) returns were not up to date. The award, the AG found, was granted to a supplier who was in the process of being deregistered with the CIPC. All of this is required by the PFMA and Treasury regulations.

Another red flag the AG highlighted was the poor storage of PPE in the Northern Cape and a few other provinces. The report found that the department failed to ensure adequate quality of PPE upon receipt. This meant that some PPE items received did not meet the minimum required standards – putting healthcare workers at risk. Among the complaints some healthcare workers raised with the AG include “coveralls and overshoes [that] were made of poor-quality material as it fell apart when putting them on”, “some masks did not have nose bars and the ear loops detached easily”, and some isolation gowns/aprons were too short, tore easily or had a bad odour”.

The AG noted that the province subsequently undertook to establish a quality control committee to evaluate the quality of PPE before orders are placed and to create a formal PPE complaints process.

As accounting officer, Theys also undertook to train and “allocate staff with the requisite knowledge of stock management practices and skills to manage the PPE stock stored in the temporary bulk storage facilities”.