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Probe finds $17 mln hole in South Africa Covid funds

South African special investigators said Friday that around $17 million in coronavirus funds was siphoned off last year through corruption, fraud and inflated prices for protective gear supplied to government hospitals and departments.

President Cyril Ramaphosa last year ordered a probe following revelations that government contracts were awarded to politically-connected individuals and companies.

In a televised address, chief investigator Andy Mothibi said that as of November, a special tribunal had been asked to claw back a total of $17.3 million (14.4 million euros) 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 Investigative Unit (SIU).

“We need to recover monies and pay that money back to the state,” he said.

The SIU has asked the courts to freeze pensions and assets of entities and individuals implicated in the thefts.

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.

“In some instances political pressure played a role in the procurement” of protective gear, Mothibi said.

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 further investigated for possible prosecution for fraud, corruption and financial misconduct charges.

According to the National Treasury, a total of $2 billion was spent by state institutions on Covid-related purchases between April and November, of which $889 million is now under investigation.

– Vaccine ‘risks’ –

South Africa has recorded over 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 vowed to limit opportunities for fraudulent behaviour.

“The area where we think there may obviously be contractual issues that need to be given attention so that we can prevent… corruption is logistics,” Mkhize told parliament on Friday, assuring that “risks” in vaccine procurement had already been minimised.

“We are determined to ensure the process is as transparent as can be,” he added.

“We don’t really want to be bogged down by a problem of corruption.”