Heberon acquisition wasted R260 million

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The Department of Defence’s acquisition of R260 million worth of Heberon from Cuba to treat COVID-19 patients was for nought as the drug is not approved for local use and is nearing its expiry date, Parliament has heard.

Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) met today (1 December), with the multi-million Rand acquisition of Heberon, apparently executed as part of South Africa’s military co-operation agreement with the Caribbean Island state, the major agenda item.

Reports from the SA Health Products Regulatory Agency (SAHPRA) and a high-level task team appointed by former defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula were tabled for discussion and recommendations.

The task team of former Intelligence director general Zola Ngcakani, former director general in The Presidency Cassius Lubisi and former National Intelligence Agency (NIA) director general Billy Masethla was given six months to complete its investigation with the PCDMV report seen as the outcome of its work.

It, similar to the SAHPRA report, is critical of the acquisition and payment processes embarked on by the SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) and the Logistics Division of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).

Additionally, an Auditor General report in support of the authority’s own investigation into the Heberon acquisition, said to have cost more than R30 million, concludes there was inadequate planning resulting in an “open-ended contract”.

Also emerging from reports tabled during the PCDMV meeting are zero evidence of SAHPRA approval; failure to comply with the Medicines and Related Substances Act; and that unused Heberon be destroyed in the light of fast approaching and in some instances, already in force, expiry dates.

Due to expiry date-related destruction, it is expected the Department of Defence (DoD) will lose more than R260 million. SAHPRA said the Heberon should be returned to Cuba by 30 November or it will be confiscated and destroyed. SAHPRA has not had feedback from the DoD.

No procurement process was followed as the drug was procured under Project Thusano, a Cuban/South African military accord, and all expenditure incurred for Heberon is irregular, the Auditor General found.

Of 970 885 Heberon vials acquired from Cuba, SAHPRA authorised use of just 10 on a single patient in October 2020 and granted no further approvals.

Recommendations by the Auditor General include disciplinary action and recovery of monies as well as the prevention of repeat incidents in the future.

Kobus Marais, Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow minister for Modise’s portfolio, said immediately after the meeting that defence minister Thandi Modise “must act”.

“When she first appeared at a portfolio committee meeting in August, Minister Modise committed to cracking the whip on the irregular Heberon procurement. She said ‘There is no way that heads are not going to roll. Procurement systems were ruined’.

“The moment of truth has come for the Minister to take decisive action and hold offending parties accountable for the deliberate breach of procurement and supply chain laws,” Marais said.

He was also critical of the non-appearance of Modise, Secretary for Defence Gladys Kudjoe and the three ministerial task team members.

“Today’s meeting was arranged some time ago. The Minister previously confirmed ‘heads will roll’. Surely, technology and the regular use of virtual meetings make attending easy. It appears the avoidance tactic is being used in an effort to avoid the predicament created by the Heberon acquisition,” Marais told defenceWeb.

Modise is in Nigeria accompanying President Cyril Ramaphosa on an official visit. She is joined by Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Naledi Pandor; Minister of Police Bheki Cele; Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola and Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele.



Ramaphosa and his delegation are visiting four African countries, with the next stop being Cote d’Ivoire.