Pearl Bhengu, the new acting chief executive of the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa), insists she is not Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini’s lackey and that this will become evident in the coming months.
Her independence was called into question two weeks ago when the Mail & Guardian revealed Bhengu was in business with Dlamini’s 21-year-old daughter, Skhumbuzo Mazibuko.
Bhengu took the position on a temporary basis after Thokozani Magwaza’s contract was controversially terminated last month, barely eight months into the job. Bhengu was Sassa’s KwaZulu-Natal regional executive and had been in that job since 2012.
Before that, she had held senior positions at First National Bank and was chief financial officer in the Ladysmith municipality.
In an email interview this week, Bhengu describes her relationship with Dlamini as “a professional employer/employee relationship”. The questioning of her independence was a “characterisation” that “describes an unprofessional relation with unclear boundaries”.
The M&G reported that there was consternation at Sassa when Dlamini announced that Bhengu was Magwaza’s replacement. Sassa insiders said that Bhengu was seen as being “too close” to Dlamini and wondered whether she would be willing to challenge the minister on matters that saw relations break down between her predecessor and the minister.
Bhengu said this week: “We share information regularly regarding our areas of the work and the synergies that need to be built in order to ensure that our individual work is complementary.
“It’s unfortunate that I can’t control speculation but I think it’s only fair that one should be judged on one’s performance. I’m sure this narrative will change after a few months, because there will be visible delivery to show over time.”
To allay fears of independence, she said she had resigned from Umnotho Wabafazi Biz, the business she and Mazibuko were involved in.
Two weeks ago, Dlamini said she had instructed her daughter to resign from the consortium “in the interest of good governance”.
With regard to her not being the best candidate for the job, Bhengu cited her “wealth of experience” in the banking and financial management sectors. “This experience is invaluable, given the fact that Sassa is tasked with taking over grant payments in the very near future.”
Before Magwaza left his post, he was concluding agreements with his counterpart at the South African Post Office (Sapo), Mark Barnes. The deal would have seen the Post Office play a critical role in the distribution of 17-million social grants. It is widely understood that Dlamini was against this. She has disputed this was the reason for Magwaza’s exit.
Bhengu said Magwaza’s proposal was still an option. But she was noncommittal and only willing to say it was “important that we will work with Sapo as a government entity and any other appropriate institution within the confines of our supply chain management processes as provided for by the Public Finance Management Act”.
She said the problem of how the agency would pay the grants was being tackled head on.
“Senior management itself is leading by example in terms of internalising the change management process required to take Sassa to the next level, regarding the insourcing of grant payment. I have addressed staff already and my message, among others, was to deepen the organisational culture based on our set of values. These values are transparency, equity, integrity, confidentiality and a customercentric approach,” she said.
Reflecting on her first days in the hot seat, Bhengu said she spent the first week meeting Sassa staff. “The purpose was to get to terms with the immediate tasks in line with our vision of becoming a leader in the delivery of social security services.”
Bhengu is confident she can help to steady the agency. “I have the benefit of a supportive management team with a complement of competent staff across all levels of the organisation. What I need to do as a leader is merely to steer this ship in the direction dictated by our vision.”
She added: “It’s common cause that Sassa is currently confronted with an enormous task of taking over the payment of social grants and I’m confident that my team is up to the task.”
In March, the Constitutional Court ruled that Dlamini was responsible for the crisis that almost saw the 17-million social grants not being paid in April. The court extended the illegal contract Sassa had with Cash Paymaster Services for the distribution of grants until March next year.
Last week, the Inkatha Freedom Party said it would propose to Parliament that Sassa have a board of directors, as was the case with most state-owned entities. Bhengu would not comment on this, saying it was for the Cabinet to make a decision.