Eventually, after four years of unchecked recklessness which not even popular US president Dwight Eisenhower could interdict, US senator Joseph McCarthy was undone by one killer question.

He provided posterity with the synonym for scapegoating individuals for disloyalty usually involving Communism, and in his case for making often unsubstantiated accusations involving the so-called “Red Scare”. He destroyed many careers and ruined lives.

In June 1954 it was legal counsel for the US Army Joseph Welch who turned the tables on the inquisitor by asking him: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Almost overnight, in the court of public opinion, support for McCarthy evaporated and, in short order, he was censured by the Senate and disappeared soon afterward from public life and attention.

That central question, “Have you no sense of decency?”, applies here and now to the corroded public life of our country.

Step forward health minister Zwele Mkhize and hats off to journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh for again exposing the rotting heart of plunder and impunity at the core of our state.

(It is worth recalling that Myburgh published his expose of Free State premier Ace Magashule, aptly entitled Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture, in April 2019. Magashule, exposed in the book as a criminal and key enabler of the Guptas, threatened to sue for defamation. Two years later and there’s no sign of his summons, though to be fair, to succeed in this legal action one requires the truth on your side and a reputation which can be defamed. Magashule has neither.)

But back to Myburgh’s latest expose, published in the Daily Maverick. He provides granular detail of how Mkhize, the man who has led — or not, as the case might be — government’s fight against the coronavirus, allowed his department to engage two of his close friends and former employees as communications consultants.

They did little consulting and even less communicating. But the firm, Digital Vibes, pocketed R150m, of which R90m has now been fingered under “suspicious payments”. Among the items identified under this heading was its charging the department of health a whopping R3.6m for a single interview on SABC TV, one the corporation would have provided after a single phone call from the minister’s well-remunerated spokesperson, Lwazi Manzi. But why use government employees when you can enrich your friends?

Little wonder Myburgh described this plunder and looting as “the most shocking case of Covid-19 looting uncovered to date”. And through the mists of time, back to the first lockdown announcement from President Cyril Ramaphosa, he gave the solemn promise in March 2020 that in respect of spending on Covid-19 matters, “every cent will be accounted for”.

It is worth reflecting on just how quickly this pandemic has not only spread but changed reputations.

One year ago, Mkhize was widely lauded by some local pundits as an A+ minister — competent, honest and informative. Just six months ago, the Financial Mail had a cover story naming him “Man of the Year for 2020”. But as his reputation evaporates along with his laughable number-spewing on the vaccine rollout (it will take 16 years on current form to vaccinate the country), it is sobering to be reminded that this minister has previous form regarding questionable payments.

As the country digested the bad vibrations emanating from Digital Vibes, another story, this one in Sunday World, shone the spotlight on Mkhize’s time as an MEC in KwaZulu-Natal when a provincial bank, Ithula, was used to siphon funds to pay former president Jacob Zuma’s legal fees and furnish his Johannesburg home. The allegations appear in an affidavit deposed by the woman whose bank account was used as the conduit between the bank and Zuma.

Mkhize’s government spokesperson, not Digital Vibes, offered no comment on this story, which will be tested soon enough. Likewise, for a minister so enriched by communications consultants and apparatchiks, his response to the feeding frenzy in the department of health (which one wag renamed “the department of wealth”) has been mute.

His department on Monday offered the spectacular non sequitur that the department be “given more time … and it will not serve much of a purpose if allegations that are under investigation are responded to publicly …”

I suppose this word salad will be laughed off or ignored as a punch-drunk public moves on to the next scandal.

Misappropriated millions of rand are one thing and directly connect to another: the state of hospitals under the watch of Mkhize’s department and his provincial colleagues.

There was last week’s heart-wrenching story of how a patient at Johannesburg’s Helen Joseph Hospital resorted to ordering 10 litres of water from a home-delivery service because the hospital had run out of water and could not even provide the sick with toilet facilities. An even larger public hospital, Charlotte Maxeke, was severely damaged by fire in April, pointing to serious maintenance neglect. Critical life-saving services there are on hold.

Given this mess, this level of ministerial indifference, incompetence and now allegations of serious corruption, nepotism and sleaze, what should we expect?

Sunday Times columnist Caiphus Kgosana provided the sad answer when he wrote: “In a normal country the health minister would have to step aside after such shocking revelations of looting of state funds in his own department by those close to him. I repeat, in a normal country …”

Just how abnormal our public life has become — how the essence of decency and shame has been removed from its core — is well illustrated by the centrepiece of the department of health and the ideological obsessiveness of the man at its helm.

The state is forging ahead with the National Health Insurance initiative (for which Digital Vibes received top dollar to publicise), broken hospitals, neglected patients and undelivered vaccines notwithstanding. The private healthcare sector, which works, will be collapsed into the state sector which doesn’t.

And on the subject of funds, Alex van den Heever, a public health specialist, estimates that it will place R450bn in procurement of services in the hands of one man, the minister of health. There will doubtless be a lot then for his current and future communications specialists to feed off. We have been warned.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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