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Digital Vibes Scandal Knocks Out SAHPRA’s Key Link Man at Health

Dr Pillay accused of orchestrating Digital Vibes tender

The senior Health Department (HoD) official in charge of cannabis regulation has been suspended and is likely to face financial misconduct charges for orchestrating the Digital Vibes rip-off. Dr Anban Pillay, acting Deputy Director and Head of Regulation and Compliance, is the main link between the DoH and the South Africa Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), and the man who shocked the cannabis industry when he told Parliament in that cannabis had no nutritional value and could not be classified as a foodstuff.

His suspension has nothing to do with cannabis but with the Digital Vibes scandal that has unseated Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize.  Digital Vibes was the communications agency that landed an irregularly-awarded R150 million tender that benefitted the former Health Minister’s family.  The Special Investigating Unit (SIU)s report into Digital Vibes recommends that Dr Pillay be charged with  financial misconduct, and he was suspended from the Department on 29 September 2021.


Read the SIU’s full Digital Vibes report here 


Presidency knew about Pillay way before his parliamentary blunder

Dr Pillay’s suspension means that SAHPRA’s relationship with the Health Department is under crisis management for the immediate future. This does not bode well for SAHPRA which requires DoH political support as it has come under severe attack from cannabis stakeholders. It is unclear which individual in Health will be responsible for SAHPRA, but for now Cannabiz Africa understands that Dr Pillay’s responsibilities will be taken over for by acting Director General Nicholas Crisp.

The SIU report, which President Cyril Ramaphosa has been sitting on for three months,  found that Dr Pillay was at the centre of the Digital Vibes scandal and went out of his way to make sure the company was appointed through several attempts, some of which failed, to circumvent supply chain management rules.

This means that the President was aware that Dr Pillay faced criminal charges when he misled MP’s during a cannabis presentation on 25 August 2021. Dr Pillay provoked a storm of outrage from the cannabis community on his “non-nutritional” comments , which flew in the face of facts.


Pillay persevered from pillar to post

Business Day reports that the SIU found that Dr Pillay was among those who attempted to irregularly appoint Digital Vibes for the 2019 National Heath Insurance (NHI) tender by deviating from supply chain management regulations. Pillay attempted to ensure that Digital Vibes was awarded the contract without advertising the tender. The attempt was shot down by the Treasury, which requested the department to advertise the tender.

Pillay then met the Treasury in July 2019, where it was agreed that a minimum of 10 companies should be identified from the central supplier database system and subsequent quotes be obtained from them.

The list of 10 companies included Digital Vibes. Two of these companies did not exist and six did not respond to the request for quotations as they did not qualify.

This left only two companies – Digital Vibes and Brandswell – as the only eligible candidates submitted to the tender evaluation committee (TEC) that included Dr Pillay.

However, members of the tender evaluation committee undercut Brandswell, which was the most qualified, to the benefit of Digital Vibes whose owner, Mather, had allegedly created a fraudulent profile for it.

According to the SIU, members of the TEC failed to correctly and fairly apply the evaluation criteria, resulting in Brandswell being scored lower than Digital Vibes, even though it was better qualified and had quoted the department at 50% less than Digital Vibes.


Private correspondence was the give-away

“Dr Pillay, Mr Maja and Ms [Shireen] Pardesi and the other members of the TEC wilfully, or at least grossly negligently, performed their functions as members of the TEC, because they failed to apply the evaluation criteria correctly, fairly and consistently in respect of both potential service providers, which effectively resulted in Brandswell being unfairly and incorrectly deemed to not have achieved the minimum threshold of 60% for functionality,” the report reads.

Mkhize later appointed Dr Pillay as the acting director-general and he compiled a letter of appointment for Digital Vibes in November 15, just days after his appointment.

Covid-19 then hit SA and, in his new role as acting director-general, Dr Pillay in March 2020 went on to contact Mather through his private Yahoo e-mail account, asking for a quotation for pamphlets, airtime vouchers, four billboards, radio advertising and television slots over two weeks for a Covid-19 awareness campaign.

He said he knew this was out of the scope of work for which the company had been appointed and that Mather had to send her costing to “us before finalisation so that there is adequate funding available for this communication”.

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