Inquisitors bury evasive Bathabile Dlamini under a document avalanche

Social development minister Bathabile Dlamini on Tuesday faced a barrage of documents that seemed to show that she was lying — but resolutely stuck to her version of events nonetheless.

For a second day in a row, Dlamini refused to make even the simplest of admissions about basic facts to a commission trying to determine if she misled the Constitutional Court last year. But her insistent evasion did not save her from contradicting herself, at one point to such an extent that presiding judge Bernard Ngoepe intervened to make absolutely sure Dlamini understood what she was being asked — and that he had an accurate record of her answer.

On Monday, Dlamini had argued, as she had before, that nobody within her department or the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) had complained that “work streams” appointed by her was usurping Sassa’s work. Those work streams, and whether they reported directly to Dlamini, are at the heart of the inquiry.

On Tuesday, Dlamini seemed to inadvertently admit that she had received a letter from then Sassa chief executive Thokozani Magwaza with just such a complaint, which showed her evidence “wasn’t the truth”, said Geoff Budlender — advocate for the Black Sash Trust, the applicant in matter.

Confronted with the contradiction Dlamini asked to respond to the question later, until Ngoepe intervened to warn her he would have to note that she refused to respond.

“The response is that there were no challenges [to the work streams],” Dlamini told Ngoepe.

Ngoepe then insisted that Budlender put the question to Dlamini again and translated by her isiZulu interpreter, who had to confirm he had translated it accurately, before accepting her response.

Several hours later advocate Seena Yacoob, for Freedom Under Law, an intervening party, confronted Dlamini with a different document that showed Dlamini’s then director-general, Zane Dangor, also complaining about the work streams.

Dlamini confirmed she had received and read the email. She did not change her stance that nobody had ever made such a complaint.

A second of Dlamini’s key claims, that the controversial “work streams” supposed to deal with a then looming crisis in the payment of social grants had reported to the Sassa rather than to her personally, came in for similar treatment.

As Dlamini says neither Magwaza nor Dangor are truthful when they say the work streams were her fiefdom, he take her through ten separate official documents that support the officials’ version, said Budlender.

Dlamini flatly refused to read the portion of one document that referred to “the minister’s work streams”, and argued that the important thing was “that these people were doing government work”. While being questioned about another document Dlamini said the exercise “is becoming too technical”.

At one point during the examination of the ten documents Dlamini seemed to suggest that all decisions taken by the chief executive of Sassa required her sign-off as minister. Asked to clarify this Dlamini twice said it would be better to read the Sassa Act than ask her opinion, then said she could not answer the question, then again said the answer was to be found in law.

Asked later if she believed she had operational control of Sassa, Dlamini asked for definitions of the phrases “hands on” and “operational control” before saying she did not understand what was required of her — on being asked whether she agreed or disagreed that she had the power to run Sassa.

A third crucial claim by Dlamini, that she that she had not been informed about a looming crisis in the payment of social grants until October 2016, did not fare much better than the other two.

Dlamini could not explain how her staff for six months failed to tell her that Sassa would miss an April 2017 deadline to bring the payment of social grants in house. Nor could she explain why she apparently never asked whether the deadline would be met.

Yet Dlamini confirmed that she had received and read a letter from the Black Sash that warned the deadline was in danger of being missed. That letter was dated a month before Dlamini claims to have learnt the same fact.

Dlamini’s cross examination is due to continue on Wednesday, when advocates for Magwaza and Dangor are likely to join in the process. Dlamini’s legal team on Tuesday heavily objected against cross examination by the officials, but Ngoepe overruled the concerns.

He would rather leave no stone unturned in doing his job, Ngoepe said, and if he made procedural mistakes the Constitutional Court to which he must report could discard tainted evidence.

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