South African special investigators said that around $17m in coronavirus funds was siphoned off last year through corruption, fraud and inflated prices for protective gear supplied to government hospitals and departments.
Last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered a probe following revelations that government contracts were awarded to politically connected individuals and companies.
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In a televised address on Friday, chief investigator Andy Mothibi said that as of November, a special tribunal had been asked to claw back a total of $17.3m in taxpayers’ money.
The probe revealed “flagrant and wanton disregard” of the law and an “insatiable pursuit of self-enrichment”, said Mothibi, who heads the government’s Special Investigating Unit (SIU).
Investigators unearthed a string of irregularities by state departments. They included overpayment for goods, wrong product specifications and the awarding of contracts to companies not registered on the government’s central supplier database.
“We need to recover monies and pay that money back to the state,” he said, adding that “in some instances political pressure played a role in the procurement” of protective gear.
The SIU has asked the courts to freeze pensions and assets of entities and individuals implicated in the thefts.
Numerous suppliers failed to disclose their close connection to officials responsible for awarding the contracts, and others used front companies to secure deals.
Nearly 40 cases will be investigated further for possible prosecution for fraud, corruption and financial misconduct charges.
According to the National Treasury, a total of $2bn was spent by state institutions on COVID-related purchases between April and November last year, of which $889m is now under investigation.
South Africa has recorded more than 1.46 million cases of coronavirus, more than 45,600 of which have been fatal, making it the worst-affected country in Africa.
The spread of infections in recent months has been fuelled by a more contagious variant of the virus.
As the country prepares to roll out coronavirus vaccines this month, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize promised to limit opportunities for fraudulent behaviour.