RIP Babita Deokaran (South Africa)

Babita Deokaran curtesy BluePrint

South African health agency whistleblower Babita Deokaran was a key witness in a long-running investigation into alleged corruption in the procurement of essential personal protective equipment (PPE) for medics in the front line of the Covid 19 pandemic.

On 23 August 2021 she was gunned down outside her home in what the authorities believe was a targeted killing.

  

Babita Deokaran joined the health department in Gauteng province as a state accountant 15 years ago. She rose through the ranks to the position of chief director of financial accounting. In this post she controlled the paper trail of payments made to government service providers, and was privy to evidence of irregularities.

According to the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), an agency in South Africa that undertakes forensic probes into corruption allegations at state entities through presidential proclamations, Deokaran had been assisting it with several cases for many years.

Most recently, she was one of a number of officials who provided evidence to the SIU into alleged corruption in the procurement of essential personal protective equipment (PPE) for medics in the front line of the Covid 19 pandemic.

The Gauteng government spent ­­almost R3 billion ($184 million) on Covid-related PPE costs – the highest of any province. The SIU found cases of prices being inflated by up to 400%.

The auditor general later found that 23 unlisted suppliers had delivered PPE to the Gauteng government worth R863 million ($51 million). In 22 instances, PPE contracts worth a total of R442 million ($27 million) were awarded to suppliers in Gauteng with no previous history of supplying PPE. In six instances, overpricing led to a potential loss of R182 million ($11 million).

Three contracts, worth a total of R332 million ($20 million), were particularly problematic. The SIU found all three were awarded irregularly because proper procurement processes were not followed.

The first, worth R125 million, was awarded to a company that belonged to the late husband of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Khusela Diko. When this was exposed in the media, the company withdrew from the contract. The SIU then found evidence suggesting that the second company, awarded a contract worth R139 million, was a front for the first.  The third company was awarded a contract for R68 million.            

The investigation led to the departure of provincial health minister Bandile Masuku, along with the department’s chief financial officer and its head of supply chain, and to Diko’s suspension.

Babita Deokaran was a key witness in these investigations.

Colleagues have told South African media that corruption was endemic in her department and that she was helping the SIU assemble a paper trail that would implicate those involved, not just in Covid-era corruption, but in dubious transactions over the past decade.

In 2011 the Gauteng health department was rocked by a corruption scandal involving over R1 billion in irregular payments. South Africa’s prosecuting authority later briefed parliament that its Asset Forfeiture Unit had recovered more than R1.5 billion, the biggest haul at the time, as a result of a major corruption investigation into the department.

An anonymous source who took part in that probe told South Africa’s Daily Maverick that Deokaran’s information had demonstrated a link between the two investigations and a local, politically connected organised crime grouping. She reportedly received threatening messages from a former member of the Gauteng legislature in the course of the latest investigation.

On the morning of 23 August 2021, the 53-year-old civil servant pulled up outside her home in Southern Johannesburg after dropping her teenage daughter off at school. Moments later a hail of bullets ripped through her car. She died later in hospital.  

In the wake of her murder, a number of WhatsApp messages from Deokaran that had been sent to civil society organisation the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation were published by Daily Maverick. The messages, sent in 2020, described how she and other senior managers at the Gauteng health department were sidelined and targeted with trumped up charges for raising questions about suspicious payments.

“My assessment of the situation is that they wanted us out of the way…They see me as an obstacle in payments they want to make to certain companies,” she wrote. “Every few years, we have a different team of people who come in and loot, and the funds seem to be a bottomless pit.”

Four days after the shooting, six suspects were arrested in connection with her murder, in part due to an account given by a witness who is now in hiding. Police minister Bheki Cele told the media that the suspects were hired hitmen, and that investigators were looking for the masterminds who had contracted them to kill Deokaran.

The suspects face charges of murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and illegal possession of firearms and ammunition. State evidence reportedly includes witness statements showing some of the accused carried out surveillance at Deokaran’s house a month before her murder. Their bail hearing was due to continue on 9 December. 

Deokaran’s murder has raised questions about why she was not provided with witness protection. President Ramaphosa has said that the country needs to do more to ensure that whistleblowers can safely exercise their rights under the South Africa’s Protected Disclosures Act.

Civil society groups and legal experts in South Africa have pointed out current levels of whistleblower protection in the law and in practice are wholly insufficient.

This story was originally published by BluePrint. An edited version is republished here by permission.

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