Health minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Health minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

When South Africans were ordered to stay at home, businesses to shut their doors and churches to abandon their pews as the pandemic rolled in more than a year ago, one of the reassuring voices was Zweli Mkhize, the health minister.

If there was ever a cabinet minister of the year award in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government for 2020, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Mkhize, who, as the face of SA’s response to Covid-19, carried the weight of the largest pandemic in the world in more than a century.

It has been nothing but a sprint for him when it became clear in early 2020 the virus was spreading well beyond China, doing stellar work, from inspecting health facilities, to appealing with health workers who threatened to down tools to show up for work, and surviving the virus himself.

He was faultless. A selfless leader who evoked memories of those who looked beyond themselves in the struggle against apartheid. That image was cemented when he himself tested positive for Covid-19 in October, sharing the fate of thousands of health workers across the country, the first line of defence against a deadly pandemic. It was as if he was one of the generals in history textbooks who physically go to battle and suffer with their troops.

It was not easy for some South Africans to buy into the idea of the lockdown, which imposed painful economic sacrifices on a country already burdened with an unemployment rate close to 30% and among the highest levels of inequality and poverty anywhere in the world.

While the sense of public unity in the face of the pandemic was soon squandered by petty regulations and deadly and unconstitutional policing, Mkhize stood out as a force of reason. While others were making ridiculous rulings on the sale of tobacco products and cooked food, he stuck to the job at hand.

Even as the government’s reputation reeled in the wake of scandals related to the procurement of personal protective equipment, his reputation remained intact.

While the ANC has rightly lost its moral standing as a leader of society due to its many scandals, few would have expected that Mkhize would be linked to the detestable corruption gravy train.

The details of the health department contracts awarded to Digital Vibes, a little-known communications company that counts his former secretary and personal assistant as directors, make depressing reading. The Daily Maverick reported how the company won about R150m worth of contracts from Mkhize’s department for work related to the government’s flagship National Health Insurance and later the coronavirus pandemic.

It all shows how deeply embedded corruption is in the ANC. While Mkhize denies wrongdoing or knowing about the contracts, his proximity to the individuals concerned can only be damaging to his and the ANC’s reputation. Politically, it poses a headache for Ramaphosa, who has staked his reputation on cleaning up the ANC after scandals in recent years. The headlines about Mkhize would have brought a smile to Ramaphosa’s rival, Ace Magashule, who has been suspended by the ANC due to his refusal to step aside while he faces criminal charges.

Of course, Mkhize is not the only ANC official who has been derailed by a scandal in his department, despite otherwise doing a good job. As Gauteng health MEC, Bandile Masuku was seen as more organised and innovative than some of his provincial counterparts. Allegations of corruption and a Special Investigating Unit finding led to premier David Makhura discharging Masuku of his responsibilities, even if he did so reluctantly.

Ramaphosa will be facing the same question as Makhura. Should he show his commitment to clean government by taking action now, and how does he weigh that against dismissing his health minister in the middle of a pandemic?

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