Staff at the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) have raised red flags about the appointment of acting chief executive Pearl Bhengu, including claims that she is in business with the 21-year-old daughter of her boss, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini.
A company records search reveals that Dlamini’s daughter, Skhumbuzo Mazibuko, and Bhengu — who is known to be close to the minister — are both directors of Umnotho Wabafazi Biz. The company was registered in July 2015 when Mazibuko was just 19.
A third director is also listed. The business is active but, responding to questions from the Mail & Guardian, social development spokesperson Lumka Oliphant said the company never got off the ground.
Oliphant said the company was started by a group of women for the sole purpose of buying shares, with a view to enter the maritime industry. The deal never materialised because it hinged on the group being accepted as part of a consortium, which did not happen, Oliphant said.
She said Bhengu had disclosed her directorship in Umnotho Wabafazi Biz, as required by law. But she did not respond to a question about the potential conflict of interest such an association may pose.
Bhengu’s interim appointment has come under scrutiny because of her perceived closeness to the minister.
The appointment came on the back of former Sassa chief executive Thokozani Magwaza’s dramatic departure from the agency — on terms that remain confidential.
Magwaza had publicly challenged Dlamini’s version of what happened regarding the reappointment of Cash Paymaster Services to pay social grants and had cancelled R47‑million worth of workstream contracts set up by Dlamini.
The eNCA news channel reported that Dlamini had rejected retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke to head up a probe into whether she should personally pay the legal costs of the Sassa grant payment debacle. The minister has reportedly agreed to a public inquiry but prefers other contenders such as former chief justice Sandile Ngcobo, former Constitutional Court judge Yvonne Mokgoro or former Gauteng judge president Bernard Ngoepe.
Sassa insiders have described the close relationship between Dlamini and Bhengu as “problematic”, because it raises questions of Bhengu’s independence.
An insider said there were doubts that Bhengu would perform her duties in the interests of the agency.
“Right now, the minister is using people to interfere in the operations of Sassa. She is giving them instructions that are contrary to what the CEO [ex-chief executive Magwaza] wanted to do.
“That’s the reason why we are going to have the inquiry … One of the reasons is the interference of the minister has to be further investigated. We don’t want anybody who is not independent from the minister, because the risk is she will take instructions without considering the interests of the agency,” the source said.
Approached for comment, Bhengu referred the M&G to Sassa spokesperson Paseka Letsatsi. He, in turn, referred the M&G to Oliphant.
A source, who asked not be identified for fear of reprisal, said Bhengu’s appointment was announced during a staff meeting at the Southern Sun hotel in Pretoria. Staff from the regions received the feed of the meeting via video link.
“We thought the engagement was going to tell us why Magwaza left — we were expecting an explanation. That didn’t happen. Only Bhengu was introduced,” he said.
The insider added that Dlamini had said Bhengu had not been her first choice. “She told staff that she initially wanted the Sassa chief financial officer [Tsakeriwa Chauke] to act but realised he was swamped in work and had no capacity.”
The source said senior management was not surprised by Bhengu’s appointment because of her close relationship with Dlamini.
“It was either going to be her or Zodwa [Mvulane, a project manager] or the CFO [chief financial officer],” the source alleged.
“It is because the minister wanted people who were not going to defy whatever she said.”
Another insider said Bhengu was “not the natural person” to take over the reins; more senior and experienced executives were available.
The SABC quoted Dlamini as saying: “Sassa needs someone who is very cool-headed, someone who understands financial [matters] or has a financial background as well as an administration background, and therefore Pearl has done a master’s in public administration; she is also accredited by the Financial Services Board.”
In April, Dlamini, in response to a parliamentary question, confirmed that Bhengu and two of the minister’s children had been provided with bodyguards at Sassa’s expense during the previous financial year after they allegedly got death threats. The R3.5‑million spent on private security for the three and another Sassa manager was found to have been irregular expenditure by Sassa and the auditor general.
Bhengu was first assigned protection when she joined Sassa as a KwaZulu-Natal regional executive in 2012. In May, The Sunday Times reported that an internal Sassa report had recommended that Dlamini pay back the R1‑million spent on her children’s security.