Minister Dlamini: Sassa crisis? That's a media invention

President Jacob Zuma and Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini. (GCIS)

President Jacob Zuma and Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini. (GCIS)

Social development minister Bathabile Dlamini on Sunday refused to answer any questions about how government grants will be paid out from April, saying a perception of a crisis was a media invention.

She also appeared to lie, about a previous lie told by her department, that sought to more deeply involve the national treasury in the unfolding shambles, then refused to take any questions on it.

Nor would she take questions on the shock resignation on Friday of the director-general of her department, Zane Dangor, or on the challenge she faces in front of the Constitutional Court.

Dlamini had called an an urgent press conference for what her staff said would be a briefing to the nation on the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa). But instead of providing any information on the unfolding crisis in the outsourced payment of grants, Dlamini read a nine-page statement that contained no new information.

In reading the statement Dlamini reiterated three times that the lifeline social grants for 17 million people would be paid come April 1, but never said how that would – or could legally – be achieved.

“On the first of April Sassa begins a new era in continued development,” Dlamini said. “As has been the case in the past no one will go unpaid.”

At the same briefing her department said that there was not yet an “interim” contract with Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) to handle the payment of grants come April 1.

  Dlamini’s department had previously announced it had reached an agreement with CPS, the current outsourced provider, after three days of negotiations that ended on Friday.
But on Sunday the department explained that there would only be a deal when a contract had been signed – and no contract has yet been signed.

Sassa has estimated that it would have to pay CPS up to R1.3-billion extra per year to continue paying social grants, an amount for which there is no available budget. It later denied that it could have made such an estimate, then said the number was a simple inflation-related escalation, which is not true.

Dlamini was formally advised in October that she would not be able to legally sign a contract with CPS because her department was obliged to engage in competitive tendering. She was also told that citing the current emergency would not serve as a shield against that requirement because that emergency had been self-created.

In addition, a legal opinion from senior counsel Wim Trengove said, the current CPS contract could not be legally extended because it was already invalid. The Constitutional Court declared the contract unlawful in 2014, but allowed it to continue so as to not interrupt the payment of grants.

Dlamini would take no questions on matters related to issues before the court because they are “sub judice”, her spokesperson Lumka Oliphant told journalists at the press briefing.

  That is not true, and Dlamini was not legally precluded from discussing the matter.

When journalists persisted with forbidden questions – at times badgering Dlamini with shouted demands – Oliphant reacted angrily, and refused to take further questions.

“The minister has said she will not answer to people who have come here with their own motives,” Oliphant said.

Dlamini accused the media or dealing in half-truths when it came to the involvement of the national treasury in the crucial negotiations with CPS, before going contrary to established, documented facts.

  Since early February, letters the Mail & Guardian has seen show that Dlamini has sought to make the treasury jointly culpable for the resolution of the Sassa crisis. The treasury, in turn, has consistently said it could not condone illegal behaviour, and that the Constitutional Court would have to be part of any solution.

This week Sassa and the department of social development claimed several times that the treasury would, then had, formed part of the negotiating team dealing with CPS.

On Friday the treasury issued a formal statement to say that it had not been part of the negotiations, and because of a conflict of interest, could not have been.

The treasury, Dlamini said on Sunday, “on their own, they decided that they were not coming, therefore that is why when we issued a statement we said these are the people that will be participating in the negotiations process.”

  In reality Dlamini herself had reassured officials – on Friday, after two days of negotiations – that treasury had formed part of the negotiations. This was reflected in a statement, still available on her department’s website at the time of publication.

  On being invited to explain this apparent lie, Dlamini only stared fixedly ahead.

Dlamini also did not respond to several questions on whether she was attempting to avoid responsibility and to duck questions.

  Pestered into speaking on Dangor, who resigned as the top bureaucrat dealing with social grants after less than four months in his position, Dlamini simply batted the question away.

“Mr Dangor is well respected within the sectors of social development. And then I’m not going to come here and discuss his issues; we are going to discuss them internally and then we will take the process forward… If he wanted to make allegations or explain to the media, that was his choice, that is not how I work with people.”

Dlamini similarly flatly refused to “account” for the sudden sick leave taken by Sassa CEO Thokozani Magwaza a week ago, which saw an acting CEO appointed.

On being persistently questioned after Oliphant declared the press conference closed, Dlamini herself reacted angrily.

“If I did not stand up you are going to say I am a lame duck. Now that I’ve stood up that things aren’t moving I’m flouting the Constitution,” she said. “It is the media that has been perpetrating that we are not going to pay on first April… You have created a lot of tension throughout the country.”

  Civil society organisation the Black Sash has turned to the Constitutional Court on the Sassa matter, asking the court to engage in direct oversight to ensure grant payments. Ruling alliance member Cosatu has called for Dlamini’s removal from her post, saying the situation she had created smells of corruption. Opposition parties the IFP and DA have for several months attempted to sound warnings, despite attempts by the ANC in Parliament to block them from doing so. This week they were joined by Cope and individual ANC MPs.

In the face of the growing criticism, Dlamini sought to suggest that President Jacob Zuma is satisfied with her performance.

“I did not join the ANC to be a minister,” she told the press conference on Sunday. “In the ANC you are appointed by the President, and if you are not a performing well again, he asks you to recuse yourself so that those who are still fit and would perform better under the circumstances would be given an opportunity to serve.”

  In a statement Saturday, the Presidency said that Zuma had met with Dlamini and finance minister Pravin Gordhan on the Sassa issue, and “is of the view that the matters are solvable.”

UPDATE:

Unbidden, Mr Esethu Hasane, a media liaison officer in the Department of Sports and Recreation, took to Twitter shortly after the Sassa presser, to explain that a minister has the right to not respond to questions. The tweet has since been deleted.

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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