South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has set up a ministerial committee to investigate alleged corruption in state tenders in the fight against the coronavirus, as the government faces criticism over its response to the pandemic.
Reports of suspect deals between government officials and businesses providing medical equipment, as well as food aid parcels to the poor, have sparked outrage in South Africa, where more than half a million cases of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 make it the fifth-largest outbreak in the world.
At least 9,604 people have died, while 387,000 have recovered as of Friday, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
South Africa’s anti-corruption watchdog said on Monday it was investigating irregularities in these contracts, the latest in a series of high-profile corruption scandals involving politically connected individuals.
“The committee will look into corruption in the procurement of goods and services sourced for the purpose of containing and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” a statement from Ramaphosa’s office said on Thursday, adding this “includes the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE)”.
Africa’s most industrialised nation accounts for more than half of the continent’s total COVID-19 cases. More than 24,000 health workers have contracted the disease and 181 have died since March.
Healthcare workers and unions say corruption is contributing to poor delivery of services and putting lives at risk.
“When the first infections were recorded back in March, the government declared a state of disaster, which meant that the normal tender procedure for government contracts was abandoned,” Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from Johannesburg said. “Within days of the announcement a number of questionable contracts were awarded.”
“Now, the Finance Minister Tito Mboweni says the process has to be more transparent.”
While the government has given contracts to service providers for PPE, the prices have been inflated. In other instances, PPE has not been delivered at all or contracts have been given to companies and people connected to the government and the governing African National Congress Party (ANC).
The Special Investigating Unit (SUI), a government agency, said 102 companies in the province of Gauteng alone are under investigation.
While in other provinces, officials have been suspended and investigations have begun, but no one has yet been charged or prosecuted.
“It’s difficult to put numbers on it because the stories are still coming out and, unfortunately, because of the lack of having good protection and preventive measures in place we may only know of the extent of the looting six or eight months down the line,” Karam Singh, head of legal and investigations at Corruption Watch, told Al Jazeera.
Ramahosa’s chief spokeswoman, Khusela Diko, is also embroiled in a scandal involving her husband Thandisizwe. His company has been accused of winning a $7m contract to supply PPE through his political connections. Diko has taken special leave and she and her husband deny breaking any laws.
Gauteng’s top health official, Bandile Masuku, and his wife have also been implicated.