Social development minister Bathabile Dlamini on Friday offered her first apology for the social grants crisis she created, as the ANC almost simultaneously called for “harsh consequence management” on the matter.
Speaking at a roadshow event where she was to reassure grant recipients that there is no crisis in the grant system, Dlamini said she was “so sorry,” TMG Digital reported on Friday.
The ANC, meanwhile, said in a statement the “regrettable events” around social grants “should never have happened”, and echoed language from cabinet, which on Thursday first used the phrase “consequence management”.
Later on the same day President Jacob Zuma flatly dismissed calls to discipline Dlamini or even investigate her conduct, saying he could not do so until there was an actual disaster in the payment of grants after April 1.
In recent months Dlamini has falsely said that she had alerted Parliament to the impending crisis, has sought to hold the National Treasury co-responsible for ensuring that grants will be paid, has blamed the media for creating unnecessary anxiety, and has sought to shift at least some blame on to the current CEO of the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) and his predecessors.
The Constitutional Court, however, was having none of it.
“The office-holder ultimately responsible for the crisis and the events that led to it is the person who holds executive political officer,” reads the full version of the judgment handed down on Friday morning after litigation from the non-profit organisation Black Sash. “It is the minister who is required in terms of the Constitution to account to Parliament. It is the minister, and the minister alone.
The Court said there may be no reason to hold responsible “any individual officials of Sassa” personally— but gave Dlamini two weeks to explain why she should not pay legal costs “out of her own pocket”.
The Court described Dlamini’s conduct as “extraordinary”, and said it had raised the possibility of grants not being paid. It did not find that Dlamini had been constitutionally delinquent, as pressure group Freedom Under Law had suggested it should, but said that both she and Sassa had been “disingenuous”.
“There is little doubt that the minister and Sassa are liable in their official capacity for the costs,” the court said, but it had to consider if “individual conduct may have played a material role”.
Throughout the process leading up to the judgment Dlamini provided the Court with scant information, then with perfunctory answers to questions, and missed every deadline in doing so, despite claiming otherwise.
In the months leading up to the crisis Dlamini missed meetings in Parliament and tried to dictate the terms of her interactions with committees, sometimes successfully. At various times she claimed a need for secrecy (even though there was no plausible need for any) and said that she was under no obligation to account to either Parliament or the Constitutional Court.
Despite strident demands from the opposition, in particular IFP MP Liezl van der Merwe, Parliament used none of its powers to hold Dlamini to account. Instead, ANC MPs on several occasions expressed their confidence in her handling of the matter.
The court on Friday effectively bypassed parliamentary oversight over Sassa on top of revoking Dlamini’s executive power, in an order it frankly admitted pushes the limits of its powers.
From mid-June, Sassa will be required to report directly to the Concourt ever three months, in considerable detail, on its progress towards coming up with a legal way to pay grants from 2018. In the meanwhile the Auditor-General, and independent experts due to be appointed, will watch over both that process and the payment of grants in the interim.
Neither Parliament nor a high-powered Ministerial Task Team hastily assembled last week get any mention in the order.