As questions were mounting about the crisis developing in the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) in recent months, President Jacob Zuma expressed his confidence in his social development minister, Bathabile Dlamini, and the ANC did its best to shield her from criticism in Parliament.
But on Thursday the government said it would consider “consequence management” of Sassa once the current fire was put out.
A ministerial task team on Sassa had not yet considered the “conduct” of Dlamini, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said at a briefing this week; that would happen after the Constitutional Court had made its ruling.
It echoed what ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa said on the steps of the Constitutional Court on Wednesday — the court would help to determine “who was asleep on the job”.
This week, Dlamini again said there was no crisis at Sassa. The claims to the contrary were nothing more than opposition propaganda, she told Parliament.
But the Black Sash, which is seeking court oversight of the shambles, saw it very differently, as advocate Geoff Budlender told the Constitutional Court the next day.
“Anyone who is not anxious … is simply not paying attention,” he said.
On Thursday, the court reserved judgment on the matter following a dramatic hearing, during which judges demanded answers and refused to accept fudged replies. It was a stunning display of judicial ire.
That Dlamini had not been paying attention — that, at best, she had been negligent to a staggering degree — seemed to weigh heavily on the justices. How could she possibly not have known, for a full six months, that Sassa had concluded it would be unable to pay social grants come April 2017? How could she have been so utterly lacking in initiative at first, then so utterly sanguine about the looming disaster once she learned about it?
Again and again, Dlamini’s advocate, Andrew Breitenbach, was pummelled with demands for details, for explanations — the same demands that have been shouted angrily by parliamentarians and aired in the media for months.
“I cannot enlighten you on that,” was the best Breitenbach could do.
Then, still under fire, he repeated the big lie told on Dlamini’s behalf in court papers, confirmed by her under oath, and which will likely be at the centre of all arguments for her dismissal — that she had not misled Parliament.
Dlamini and her department, Breitenbach said, had been honest with Parliament at a November 30 meeting of the portfolio committee on social development. There, it had been “made quite plain that the timelines will not be met”.
A recording of the meeting paints a different picture, revealing that, although she equivocated about the timing, she stood by as Sassa chief executive officer Thokozani Magwaza said his agency would be ready to pay grants come April 2017.
“We will try and show the committee that we are ready to take over on the first of April,” Magwaza told the committee as part of his prepared remarks, as Dlamini sat silent.
The presentation that followed, with its mention of delays in specific areas of technology, left MPs across the spectrum with many questions, the most pressing being: Will Sassa be ready to handle grant payments come April 1 2017? Dlamini’s answer was less direct.
“We have outlined our options but I think now we are called upon to give a full account of our contingency plan here. And that has implications. It’s going to put some at an advantage but also it’s going to put the work we are doing at risk. And therefore, with due respect, we don’t want to risk the work we are doing.”
Documents before the court show that, at that time, Dlamini had known for at least a month that Sassa believed there was no possible way it could pay grants come April.
For the Black Sash, at least, the implications are clear. “The minister grievously misled the portfolio committee of the National Assembly, and she and Sassa both did that,” Budlender told the court.
And, the Post Office added, had Dlamini disclosed the true state of affairs at that time, it could have been ready to distribute the grants, according to its submissions.
Answering questions in Parliament on Thursday, Zuma said the disarray at Sassa was not a crisis but an “unfortunate episode”, which the government deeply regretted.
He insisted that he could take no action against her because nothing had gone wrong yet — because only on April 1 would there be a mistake.
“So why punish somebody before anything happens?” he asked.
Finding extra money? Not a problem
Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) has agreed to continue paying social grants for a fee of some R2.33‑billion a year, the company disclosed in papers filed with the Constitutional Court on Thursday.
That represents an increase of roughly 4% on the per-recipient price CPS has charged the state over the past five years. The South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) will have to find the extra R100‑million in its existing budget.
Helping the likes of Sassa to find money in existing budgets is something the finance department is pretty good at, treasury director general Lungisa Fuzile told Parliament this week. And if money were to run out, it would do so towards the end of the financial year, he said, leaving plenty of time to “augment” where necessary.
On Wednesday, CPS representatives would not tell the Constitutional Court how much the company intended to charge to continue distributing grants, saying it involved an inflation calculation. They suggested that a previous “in principle” agreement between Sassa and CPS — nullified by a ministerial task team — could easily form the basis of a new contract.
On Thursday CPS gave the court a copy of the “draft contract” it had agreed to with Sassa, but which was never signed. That contract is for two years, at R194‑million a month, regardless of how many grant recipients CPS pays on behalf of the state every month.
The Post Office said it could take over grant payments at a cost of R20 a recipient. That would equate to an annual cost of R2.76‑billion — or R429‑million more than the CPS offer. — Phillip de Wet