Dr Nicholas Crisp. Picture: ALAISTER RUSSELL
Dr Nicholas Crisp. Picture: ALAISTER RUSSELL

Nicholas Crisp has been appointed acting director-general of the national health department following the suspension of Sandile Buthelezi.

Buthelezi was asked to go on leave, reportedly after he was questioned about his role in the R150m Digital Vibes scandal. His suspension and the appointment of an acting head come as the country’s vaccination programme is stalling.

It also follows soon after the appointment of a new minister and deputy minister to head the crucial department that is tasked with managing and controlling the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Crisp confirmed that he would be taking over “for a minimum of 10 days”, and that he had been informed of the decision at 7am on Thursday and spent the day signing documents.

Attempts to get clarity and further information from health department spokesperson Popo Maja were unsuccessful.

Eyewitness News reported on Thursday that a letter, signed by health minister Joe Phaahla, stated that Crisp will be acting director-general with effect from Thursday until further notice.

Crisp is a deputy director-general in the department, and is responsible for handling the country’s vaccine rollout.

Speaking to Business Day on Thursday night, Crisp said he was ready to hold the fort in his acting capacity. He confirmed that Phaahla had asked him to take the reins as acting director-general for a minimum of 10 days.

“Yes, I have been asked to hold the fort until the DG, Sandile Buthelezi, comes back. The minister has asked me to be prepared to be the acting DG for a minimum of 10 days,” he said.

Crisp said one of his priorities was to propel the country’s Covid-19 vaccination rollout, which he hoped would slow the spread of Covid-19 given the abundance of vaccines available in the country.

“The country has no shortage of vaccines. Now we are vaccinating about 250,000 a day, and I hope that it stay that way, not just during the 10 days that I will be acting as DG, but until Christmas, so that people are able to move on with their lives.

“We will keep on pushing the vaccination programme so that we can vaccinate as many people as possible,” he said.

Daily Maverick earlier this week reported that Buthelezi was among the officials whose suspension was “imminent” due to allegations relating to the Digital Vibes scandal.

The scandal has already claimed the scalp of health minister and key Ramaphosa ally Zweli Mkhize.

Mkhize, who initially won plaudits for his handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, was engulfed in scandal over the Digital Vibes contract, first for work related to National Health Insurance (NHI) and then projects on Covid-19.

He resigned ahead of a cabinet reshuffle by President Cyril Ramaphosa in August. Mkhize has denied all wrongdoing and said he would challenge the findings by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), the state’s forensic investigation and litigation agency set up to fight corruption.

The SIU has since said Mkhize could face a criminal investigation after failing to execute his function in compliance with the constitution and general oversight responsibilities in respect of the affairs of the national health department and his obligations in terms of section 63 of the Public Finance Management Act.