Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini this week sought a definition of “meeting” before she could confirm that she had one.
She also had difficulty with the phrase “operational control”, more trouble with the meaning of the word “control”, and she struggled with the idea of “free engagement”.
Under cross-examination during an inquiry into her role in the social grants debacle, she refused to read parts of documents that contradicted her version of events. In other instances, she insisted on reading out loud full documents or paragraphs, insisting that the context would otherwise be lost.
She would not affirm such simple propositions as the payment of 17-million grants is the most important part of her job.
Several admonitions notwithstanding, she would rarely answer yes-or-no questions with anything so simple.
She refused to comment on matters such as why all her senior staff, including some she still trusts implicitly, kept her in the dark about crucial developments — which imposed legal obligations on her — for months on end.
She would not explain how she could claim ignorance on matters documentary evidence shows she was informed about. Nor would she backtrack on her claims of ignorance.
Instead, in a hearing centred on whether she had disrespected the Constitutional Court and perjured herself, Dlamini wrapped herself in a cloak of defiant arrogance and tied herself in knots as she sought to evade personal responsibility.
The results were bizarre. In one particularly circular argument, Dlamini insisted that it was possible to misinterpret a letter she wrote, in which she clearly ordered the creation of controversial “workstreams”, to mean that she had decided to create the workstreams.
Missing from the document, Dlamini said, was the context — that she had made any such apparent decision in close consultation with what was then a ministerial advisory committee.
The workstreams were a reincarnation of that same advisory committee, which would mean the workstreams appointed themselves.
Dlamini simultaneously held that, as far as she was concerned, the creation of the workstreams conformed with the strict requirements of public finance (which was not the case) and that the decision had been correct because nobody ever complained about the process followed.
In like fashion, Dlamini argued that she had not usurped the role of the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) by appointing those workstreams to do Sassa’s job while reporting directly to her, because there had been no complaints from Sassa.
When she was shown documents revealing complaints, Dlamini initially confirmed their authenticity without offering any comment. Later she volunteered information that there had been discussions and complaints — contrary to her earlier assertions — but that she had thought the matter resolved.
Dlamini confirmed that Sassa had been aware of a legal requirement that it inform the Constitutional Court of a looming crisis a year before it arose. She said two of her still-trusted officials had since apologised for mistakenly withholding that information from her for six months.
For the remaining six months, she explained, once she became aware of the obligation and its urgency, the problem was the lack of a substantial plan. So, with nothing constructive to tell the Constitutional Court, she opted simply to tell it nothing at all.
Throughout proceedings, Dlamini clung to what she clearly considered trump cards, such as the fact that the workstreams she says were not hers were only occasionally (rather than consistently) labelled as “minister’s workstreams” in official documents.
She seemed unaware that advocates were patiently placing on the record instance after instance when she was, at best, not telling the truth, building up a report for the Constitutional Court to show that she had been dishonest in general and acting in bad faith in some cases.
The court has already found her ultimately responsible for the social grants crisis itself, which imperilled the continued payment of social grants and so, according to Sassa’s own admission, risked the country being set aflame.
Dlamini now faces being ordered to personally pay the cost of some of those Constitutional Court proceedings, plus the costs of this week’s inquiry. Those are conservatively estimated to amount to about R5-million.