Head of Free State health department not suspended despite being charged

Head of Free State health department not suspended despite being chargedGodfrey Mahlatsi, HOD of the Free State Health Department. PHOTO: FS Government/Facebook
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It is business as usual at the Free State Department of Health with the acting Head of Department (HoD) Godfrey Mahlatsi back at work after he was released on R5 000 bail on 11 February.

Mahlatsi appeared before the Bloemfontein Magistrate Court after he handed himself over to the police following a warrant of arrest issued in the first week of February. The charges relate to alleged fraud and corruption that took place in the health department from 2011 to 2015, Hawks spokesperson in the province, Christopher Singo told Spotlight. According to the indictment, Mahlatsi is only accused of contravening the Public Finance Management Act, while some of his co-accused face charges ranging from corruption and fraud to money laundering.

Mahlatsi was the accounting officer in the health department from 2014 to 2018 when it was under provincial treasury administration. He was appointed acting HoD of the provincial health department in May 2021 (Spotlight interviewed him at the time).

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Mahlatsi is facing charges together with the former HOD, David Motau, who has been suspended from his new position of registrar at the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) as well as ten other officials in the department. The alleged fraud and corruption led to an R8.7 million loss to the department. Christopher Tsatsawane, HPCSA spokesperson confirmed to Spotlight that Motau is still suspended.

Motau, 10 department officials, and six service providers appeared before the Bloemfontein Magistrate court in August last year and were all released on bail ranging from R2 000 to R5 000. The indictment now also includes Mahlatsi because he was the accounting officer in the health department during that time.

“It is alleged that during the course of the regulatory audit in the department, the audit team from the Auditor-General requested information on certain payments made to service providers and subsequently queried the procurement processes that were followed. As a result, an internal investigation followed where it was discovered that false and forged ‘requests for payment advices’ were submitted during the period from January 2011 to December 2015 for payments that were made to the service providers. However, it is further alleged that no evidence could be found whether the actual services were rendered by the service providers or not,” Singo said. “The department was prejudiced and suffered a total loss of more than R8 million, which was paid to the service providers. The matter was then reported to the police, and a case was handed over to the Hawks Serious Commercial Crime Investigation in Bloemfontein for further investigation.”

Mahlatsi, Motau, and other accused persons will appear in the Bloemfontein Magistrate court on 14 March.

In the eye of the storm. Dr David Motau, former HOD of the Free State Department of Health who is now registrar of the HPCSA
In the eye of the storm. Dr David Motau, former HOD of the Free State Department of Health who is now suspended as registrar of the HPCSA. PHOTO: Free State Health

Business as usual, for now

When asked if Mahlatsi is suspended, provincial health spokesperson Mondli Mvambi says it is the prerogative of the Free State Premier Sisi Ntombela to determine what happens to Mahlatsi, but at this moment he is still the HOD of the department. “You must remember that in South Africa, you are innocent until proven guilty. We cannot subjugate the courts, he said.

Labour Law specialist Jonathan Erickson of the Black Emancipation Allied Workers Union of South Africa (BEAWUSA) in the Free State says, generally, such conduct warrants an immediate suspension unless the employer feels that the allegations are not serious. “In the event that serious allegations are raised against employees, whether internally or externally, an employer is obliged to investigate the allegations, and act as per their disciplinary code where applicable,” he says. “Even where a criminal case is pending, an employer is within their right to continue with their own internal investigation. Should an employee be found to have committed any misconduct, even on a balance of probability, the employee could be charged and may even be dismissed before the outcome of a criminal court.”

Erickson said the Labour Relations Act requires that a fair process is followed before issuing any warnings or dismissing an employee. “In cases of very serious misconduct, certain disciplinary codes make provisions for precautionary suspension pending investigation. Suspension is usually invoked where certain elements are present. For example, the possibility of intimidation of witnesses, tampering with evidence, the possibility of repetition of the misconduct which is theft, fraud and related misconduct,” he said.

Spotlight understands that Health MEC Montseng Tsiu and Premier Sisi Ntombela met to discuss Mahlatsi’s fate soon after his court appearance.

When approached for comment, the premier’s spokesperson Sello Pieterson told Spotlight the two decided that Mahlatsi will continue with his duties. “The HOD has explained himself to the Premier about the implications and he stated his case. Following the meeting, the Premier noted that Mahlatsi’s presence does not have the potential to interfere with the quality of his work and therefore it is the view of the Premier that the services of the department will also not be disturbed while Mahlatsi is still in his office.”

When asked if this is the norm in the Free State for officials to be criminally charged and kept in their positions, Pieterson said that each case is assessed based on its merits.

“And based on the assessment, we then decide if it warrants suspension or not. In Mahlatsi’s case, he has not been charged by the department. This is purely a criminal case, and that is why we say we will allow for the law to take its course. Until there are reasons enough to charge Mahlatsi as the department HOD, necessary steps will be taken but at this point, we believe that his presence will not interfere with the quality of the department’s services,” Pieterson said.

Asked for comment, Mahlatsi told Spotlight that the problem is that “the same people that I suspended will be appearing with me in court. I wish they could separate the cases. That is why I’m not suspended because my bosses know that I am innocent.”

Mahlatsi said he cannot say more since the matter is before court.

Another investigation

Mahlatsi is also being investigated by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) for alleged PPE tender fraud relating to an amount of R39 million that was awarded by the provincial Treasury to 32 service providers who supplied sub-standard surgical gowns to the health department. Mahlatsi was head of provincial treasury from 2013 until his appointment as acting health head in May 2021.

According to the SIU Report on COVID-19 related procurement irregularities which was released on 25 January 2022, the unit received allegations on 30 September 2020 “when the Chief Director of Assets and Liability Management in the Free State Treasury brought it to the attention of the SIU. The SIU has instituted civil action in the Special Tribunal to interdict the Free State Treasury and the Free State health department from making payments to 30 suppliers who provided surgical gowns to the value of R39 150 739, and to have the awarding of the contracts reviewed and set aside.” The case was heard in August last year and judgement has been reserved.

Opposition parties shocked

Meanwhile, opposition parties in the province vowed to follow the case closely.

“We will be following this case very closely. We will question the Premier on why the acting HOD is still at work and whether the labour law regulations will be followed,” said Mandisa Makesini, member of the Free State Legislature and Economic Freedom Fighters provincial chairperson.

Democratic Alliance Health spokesperson Marriette Pittaway says she is shocked at the allegations against Mahlatsi. “This came as a surprise. I hope more arrests will follow,” she said.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated on 13 March 2023 to reflect that Godfrey Mahlatsi is only charged with contravening the PFMA and not corruption as previously stated. We apologise to Mr Mahlatsi for the error.