South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has put his Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on special leave, after allegations his department irregularly awarded COVID-19-related contracts to a communications company controlled by his former associates.
“This period of special leave will enable the Minister to attend to allegations and investigations concerning contracts between the Department of Health and a service provider, Digital Vibes,” Ramaphosa’s office said in a statement on Tuesday.
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It was the latest in a series of corruption allegations linked to coronavirus-related tenders that have caused public outrage. Ramaphosa has promised that corruption during the COVID-19 pandemic will be dealt with harshly.
Earlier on Tuesday, Mkhize told the press that he had approached the president about taking a special leave pending an investigation into the contracts awarded to communications firm Digital Vibes. He has previously denied any wrongdoing.
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.
The SIU last week said that 63 government officials had so far been handed over for prosecution, while 87 companies will be blacklisted.
Mkhize 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 led South Africa’s campaign against COVID-19.
He gained popularity through his handling of the pandemic and has been 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.