Social development minister Bathabile Dlamini on Monday staunchly opposed efforts to extract information and opinions from her under cross examination — to the point of refusing to agree that ensuring the payment of social grants is the most important part of her job.
“All the work that I do is important,” Dlamini told Geoff Budlender, advocate for civil society group Black Sash.
Asked if any other part of her job affects 17 million people (the number of social grant recipients) every month, Dlamini said yes. Asked what that is, Dlamini said she she did not understand the question.
The exchange was the first in what became an increasingly bizarre interaction between Dlamini and Budlender for the rest of the afternoon, as Budlender sought simple admissions from Dlamini, and she refused to provide them, to the eventual frustration of presiding officer Bernard Ngoepe.
“You obviously have the right to answer questions the way you want,” Ngoepe told Dlamini, but strongly advised her not to give caveats with every simple question, in the format of “yes, but”.
“If they want information from you, let them get it from you. Don’t over-volunteer information,” he said.
Dlamini took Ngoepe’s advise to heart for a couple of questions, before digging in her heels in spectacular fashion.
Dlamini is facing an inquiry into whether she misled the Constitutional Court last year in the midst of the social grants crisis for which she was responsible. Key to that crisis was the so-called “work streams” Dlamini appointed, to report to her directly, on how Sassa could move towards paying social grants itself, instead of via an irregular outsourcing contract with Cash Paymaster Services.
As the March 2017 deadline to regularise the payment system loomed, Dlamini took no responsibility for the fact that it would be missed, instead blaming Sassa for not being ready. She did not tell the ConCourt about the work streams.
On Monday, carefully led by her advocate at the start of proceedings, Dlamini said she had simply neglected to mention the work streams to the Concourt because, at the time, she was focused on demands that she personally pay the costs of legal action. She said the work streams had been the entirety of Sassa’s efforts to move towards a new payment system, and agreed that she had appointed the individuals on the work streams.
But she maintained she had not usurped the functions of Sassa when she told it who to hire – because nobody at Sassa had complained about her instructions.
“I don’t see it that way,” Dlamini said, when it was put to her that her preemptory instructions on who to appoint did, in fact, amount to interference.
She later added that she had not interfered because, after telling Sassa who to hire, she had not told those individuals (who reported to her) how to go about their work.
Dlamini said the irregular nature of the appointment of the work streams was being dealt with now, but could not say how.
Nor, initially, could she say whether she agreed or disagreed with a treasury assessment of the nature of the procurement process.
On Monday morning, under examination by her own legal team, Dlamini said it was impossible to use a normal tender process in the establishment of the work streams because the matter had been urgent: the March 2017 deadline loomed.
But in May last year the treasury wrote a letter to Sassa saying there had been no evidence of urgency, Budlender pointed out under cross examination. Proposals for the work streams had been received in October 2015, and Sassa had sat on those proposals for six months.
Notwithstanding that letter, there had been a meeting with treasury, said Dlamini.
But did she disagree with the letter, Budlender wanted to know?
“This is a view of someone at treasury,” said Dlamini.
Does that mean she knows more about procurement than the treasury, asked Budlender?
“Well that may perhaps be your view,” said Dlamini.
In response to nine more questions on whether she agreed or disagreed with the treasury Dlamini said that she will not change her view, that she will say neither yes or no, and that she was “against the spirit of the letter”.
She did not, however, answer the actual question.
Ngoepe eventually stepped in and determined to his satisfaction that Dlamini, in fact, disagreed, with the treasury. Yet Ngoepe then could not determine whether Dlamini concurred with the underlaying statement in the treasury letter, that urgency had been caused by Sassa’s delays.
“Things were happening, it just took long,” said Dlamini on that six-month delay.
The inquiry is due to continue on Tuesday.