South Africa

Social Grants Crisis: Rogue minister on a suicide mission – Bathabile Dlamini undermines Parliament, again

By Marianne Thamm 28 February 2017

Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini simply failed to appear before a crucial SCOPA meeting seeking not only to probe SASSA’s roughly R1-billion in irregular expenditure and financial misconduct, but also what plans are in place for the crucial April 1 switchover of payment of social grants to 17-million vulnerable South Africans. On the same day, newly appointed SASSA CEO, Thokozani Magwaza, was mysteriously booked “off sick”. Angry SCOPA committee members called for a parliamentary inquiry into SASSA and for Minister Dlamini to be called to account while committee chair, Themba Godi, said the minister and SASSA appeared to be on a “suicide mission” with regard to the payment of grants. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Update: SASSA, after informing SCOPA earlier on Tuesday that it would not be approaching the Constitutional Court, reportedly did so late on Tuesday requesting the court to authorise the agency to engage Cash Paymaster Services from April 1, 2017 to March 30, 2018. In papers filed SASSA requested the Con Court to order that it file a report by October 1, 2017 with regard to its readiness to pay social grants. In the late application SASSA states that should the court not grant the order “the majority of our poor people will have hardship in receiving payment of social grants.”

Four weeks.

That is all the time left before the March 31 deadline and the irregular contract with CPS/Net1 which pays out some R10-billion per month to 17-million South Africans who depend on it comes to an end.

And SASSA has no alternative system in place.

On Tuesday, angry members of parliament’s standing committee on public accounts learned that not only had Minister Dlamini ignored her obligation to appear before SCOPA but that embattled SASSA CEO, Thokozani Magwaza, had been booked off sick with “hypertension”.

Tensions between Dlamini and Magwaza had been apparent at SASSA’s presentation to the social development portfolio committee on Thursday last week where Dlamini dominated, leaving little room for SASSA officials to speak.

On Wednesday, a few hundred metres away from the crucial SCOPA meeting, Dlamini was attending a press conference by the social development ministerial cluster along with her colleagues Minister of Sport, Fikile Mbalula, Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthetwa and Minister of Public Works, Thulas Nxesi. A statement after the fact dealt with the SASSA crisis in one paragraph:

The SASSA Payment System presents an opportunity for the empowering of local communities through local economic development… It has been reported that government will not be able to pay social grants after March this year. We would like to take this opportunity and reassure South Africans, in particular, social grant beneficiaries that Government will through SASSA continue on its constitutional mandate to administer and pay social grants after March 2017.”

Back in Committee Room V454 however, an entirely different and more troubling picture was emerging as SASSA’s programme manager, Zodwa Mvulane, admitted that there was no programme in place to deliver the grants on April 1.

The minister and SASSA, the committee heard, were depending on the renegotiation of the contract with CPS Net1 on the same terms as the previous tender, which the Constitutional Court found had been irregularly awarded.

SCOPA chair, Themba Godi, was having none of it.

We cannot pretend we cannot see the elephant in the room,” he said, adding, “The minister said she would give us time. April 1 is April Fool’s day but for the South African public it is a slowly creeping reality. If the minister is not here I suspect the issue is more than just an administrative issue; it has become a political issue.”

He added that if the minister and SASSA “messed up then you must know everything will go up in flames practically or in 2019”.

An ill-prepared and clearly uncomfortable SASSA delegation – with an acting CEO freshly appointed about half an hour before the briefing was due to take place – faced a grilling of note by committee members. It fell to Mvulane to waffle her way through the presentation during which she finally admitted that SASSA has yet to meet with current service provider CPS Net1 to discuss the terms of a new contract that is still be to negotiated. She said half the blame for this could be placed on SASSA and the rest “somewhere else”, which she did not identify.

ANC committee member Mnyamezeli Booi said it didn’t matter that SASSA had sent an acting CEO to brief the committee – “she’s got no clue sitting here. She looks like a flower” – as the CEO himself also appeared to have no idea of the organisation’s plans. Booi said that Parliament “has not been taken seriously”.

The IFP’s Mkhuleko Hlengwa noted that the game of “musical chairs on the eve of a crisis is concerning, the people who were being taken for a ride is people who depend on grants”.

The DA’s Tim Brauteseth said he was “disgusted” that the minister and the CEO were not present but added that it was peculiar that CPS Net1 CEO Serge Belamont had informed shareholders on February 10 that he had had “lots of interactions” with SASSA.

We have a recording of him saying that these [interactions] have not been shared with Treasury or the public because they are too complicated,” Brauteseth said.

He told Mvulane that “an emergency was created. You will put a gun to their heads [Treasury] saying ‘the country is going to burn, you have to pay CPS’. Also can you tell us how much the handling fee will be?”

I don’t know,” replied Mvulane, adding, “we have sought the services of an actuary to help us with negotiations.”

Brauteseth’s question as to how CPS, “a white American-owned company, fitted into the notion of radical economic transformation”, was met with silence.

There is this strong bond with CPS,” Godi interjected.

The minister’s scuppering of Tuesday’s presentation to SCOPA prevented committee members from asking further questions about the R1-billion in irregular and fruitless expenditure and damages and losses and a “summary of the progress on financial misconduct cases as at January 31, 2017”, so SASSA dodged that bullet as well.

Brauteseth also quizzed Mvulane about several work stream advisory committees, personally appointed by the minister to advise on SASSA’s switchover and which cost R4-million in total over a year. He said the individuals who served on these committees essentially ended up setting up work for themselves and their companies.

The people who sat on the advisory committee ended up being the team leaders and their companies were doing work for SASSA… Do you not see that it is inappropriate that an advisory committee advising the minister on a course of action on the grant payment system then appoints themselves to do the work?” Brauteseth asked Mvulane.

Mvulane seemed confused and was unable to reply.

Asked what procedures were followed and what competitive processes were undertaken to approve this expenditure in terms of the PFMA, Mvulane replied “we did not go through a process”.

Brauteseth added that SASSA and the minister had “spent all this money benefitting people on the advisory committee and we are nowhere closer to going live on April 1.

Yes and no,” replied Mvulane. “The ‘no’ part is the fact that we are in the process of procuring the very systems that are supposed to get SASSA ready.”

It was the ANC’s Booi who called for a full parliamentary enquiry, which was supported by the DA’s David Ross. Ross described SASSA’s mismanagement as “horrific”.

The EFF’s Ntombovuyo Mente told the committee that “the person who made the decision over the CPS contract extension must come and explain to Parliament”.

That very person, Minister Dlamini, was somewhere else informing the media that she would be giving a press briefing all of her own on Wednesday addressing issues relating to negotiations with the Constitutional Court, Treasury and CPS.

At the SCOPA meeting however, it was Treasury’s Solly Tshitangano who had the last word.

The procurement decision rests with the accounting officer or the accounting authority. We can only advise. And if they decide to break the law, they must face the consequences.” DM

Photo: Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini launches Child Protection Week, Braakspruit Farm Sports Ground near Klerksdorp, 29 May 2016 (GCIS)

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