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Social Grants: Reaching a fresh new incoherent low –...

South Africa

South Africa

Social Grants: Reaching a fresh new incoherent low – Bathabile Dlamini’s fact-free press conference

On Sunday, after another week of high drama, apparent behind-the-scenes negotiations with service provider CPS, the resignation of her most senior official in the department, Zane Dangor, as well as Constitutional Court flip flops by Sassa, Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini called a press conference. This she did ostensibly to clear up doubts, to reassure the nation and set out what will happen after March 31 when the current illegal contract with CPS ends. None of that happened. Instead, a defensive and rambling Dlamini, shielded by her spokeswoman Lumka Oliphant, blamed everyone else including the media and “people who want to impose themselves on us” for the crisis. Revealing just how much of a treacherous and high-risk game Dlamini has opted to play, the Minister of Defence also weighed in later, saying the state would deliver grants “no matter what it takes”. By MARIANNE THAMM.

It was newly appointed Post Office CEO, Mark Barnes, presenting to Parliament’s portfolio committee on telecommunications in April 2016, who suggested that government should stop doing business with banks as “the good old days of a government guarantee are over”.

We must keep the money in the fiscus,” said Barnes, sounding like a modern-day radical economic transformation revolutionary.

It was a rather startling statement coming from Barnes, a maverick businessman who at that stage was not yet acquainted with the protocols of the committee. And while Barnes was forced to withdraw his comment on banks, it is worth reviving considering Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini’s extreme determination – flouting a 2014 order by the ConCourt – in continuing to do business with US-registered CPS/Net1 and which even on a cloudy day would neatly fit the current epithet of White Minority Capital (WMC).

It’s so glaringly obvious that even DA Scopa committee member Tim Brauteseth raised the WMC bogeyman, asking Sassa officials last week how CPS, “a white American-owned company fitted in with the notion of radical economic transformation”.

Before he was suddenly booked off ill for an apparently indefinite period, Sassa CEO, Thokozani Magwaza, had made contact with Barnes, requesting SAPO’s assistance. A letter, signed off by a Sassa executive, to Barnes stated, “should this be possible‚ a transitional arrangement could be entered into through an intergovernmental agreement‚ which could not necessarily require a full procurement process”.

It is this communication which apparently infuriated Dlamini, who has clearly sought to drive a particular outcome with regard to the payout of social grants after March 31 – finding a way to renegotiate a contract with current service provider CPS/Net1 come hell, high water, or the country’s laws, courts or the Treasury.

Department of Social Development Director-General, Zane Dangor, at an earlier presentation to Parliament’s social development portfolio committee, was rightly much more concerned with the legal urgency of the matter and told the committee that the Constitutional Court would be approached on February 8 “as a matter of urgency”.

Tensions between Dangor and the minister reached breaking point on Friday when Dangor, who was the Director-General and the accounting officer of the department tasked with negotiating with CPS, resigned citing a “breakdown in communication” with Dlamini. It is not clear at this stage whether Dangor will serve out a three-month notice period or leave immediately.

These were some of the crucial questions journalists were hoping to clear up at Sunday’s urgent media conference called by the minister to “brief the nation” and which was also meant to clear up various key issues with regard to ongoing talks with CPS as well as report back on the current state of interactions with stakeholders including Sassa and Treasury. The presser, however, ended in unprecedented hostility and with no clear outline of the nuts and bolts or legality of any deal with CPS. A Sassa official on Sunday admitted that “no deal” with CPS had been signed.

So, with only four weeks to go and with grant recipients concerned about whether payouts will happen on April 1, this should have been a crucial and authoritative communication of the minister and Sassa officials.

Instead, Dlamini’s demeanour, as well as that of her spokesperson and human shield, Lumka Oliphant, was hostile, defensive and obfuscatory from the start. Dlamini kicked off the conference in Pretoria reading haltingly from a statement which served more to outline the history of Sassa as well as set out her version of how and why she has kept the country as well as 17-million grant recipients on a knife-edge for several months.

Dlamini spoke mostly in platitudes, saying “the governing party is also committed to radical economic transformation. As mandated by the African National Congress, the Department of Social Development and Sassa have R140-billion social assistance muscle which goes directly to beneficiaries that has a potential to help equalise and change the lives of the majority of people in our country. Currently, the money revolves around the same retailers and leaves communities the minute beneficiaries get the money. This has to change.”

However, she provided absolutely no detail on how exactly she envisaged doing this.

The minister seemed determined to hammer the message that social grants would be paid out on April 1 and that the “crisis” with regard to this had been manufactured by the media “and people who want to impose themselves on us”.

On Friday, however, the minister and Sassa filed a follow-up report to the Constitutional Court, accepting responsibility for failing to ensure that systems would be in place for the agency to take over the payment of social grants from April 1, 2017 and stating that the original plan disclosed to the court in 2015 had been “overly optimistic, unrealistic and underpinned by insufficient research”.

And while Dlamini and Sassa officials already knew this in October last year, they failed to disclose this at several shambolic portfolio committee meetings where exactly these questions were asked. Dlamini failed to pitch for two of these committee meetings where she is mandated to be held accountable.

On Sunday, Dlamini, who appeared visibly shocked that journalists would actually dare ask questions, moved her lips soundlessly when asked about Dangor’s resignation, CEO Magwaza’s absence and also the specifics of the imminent deal with CPS.

This is our media briefing,” she scowled at journalists, suggesting that this was a one-way conversation and that the media had no right to challenge or probe her as a government official.

Later she told journalists “you are ill-treating us”.

A clearly nervous and aggressive Oliphant, keen to shield her political principal, did a Sean Spicer and attempted to shut down the briefing which ended in an angry exchange between the minister and eNCA’s Karyn Maughan as Oliphant strode about seemingly terrified and exasperated, constantly seeking direction from the minister.

It was a shockingly unprofessional spectacle and certainly did not serve to convey any confidence, authority or accountability on the part of the minister.

Challenged as to the current relationship between Treasury and Sassa, the Minister and Oliphant could not provide a coherent reply.

In a statement issued on Friday, Treasury noted that the Department of Social Development had requested it to participate in negotiations with CPS; however, “National Treasury advised that such request cannot be favourably considered for the following reasons: 1. The procurement regulatory framework delegates this responsibility to the Accounting Officer of the respective department. 2. Sassa and the Department of Social Services have announced publicly that at some point they will approach National Treasury to regularise process under way.

National Treasury remains committed to assist when required to find solutions within the confines of the Constitution and the procurement regulatory framework to ensure that the deserving beneficiaries of the grants do not suffer,” read the statement.

In other words “It’s the law, Stupid!”.

On Tuesday, Dlamini – should she accept the invitation to appear – will no longer be able to dodge the bullet, when she faces a grilling at Scopa. On Saturday Scopa chair, Themba Godi, said he had written to the minister after she had failed to pitch for a meeting last Tuesday.

We are looking forward to meeting her on Tuesday – so that she personally, as the political head, can talk to us on how did it come about that we are where we are, since the CPS contract had an expiry date and it is two years after the Constitutional court made a ruling.”

Godi, in reference to Dangor’s shock resignation on Friday, said he [Dangor] had been one of many officials who had been frustrated by the “heavy-handed interference” by Dlamini in Sassa’s administrative matters. It was Dangor who told the social development committee on Wednesday last week that cash would be delivered to grant recipients by truck if needs be.

A measure perhaps of just how seriously this potential crisis is being viewed away from the public eye where President Zuma and Dlamini have sought to repeatedly assure recipients that they would receive their grants, is that Minister of Defence, Nosiwive Mapisa-Nqakula, commented on the matter on Sunday.

Mapisa-Nqakula, chair of justice, crime prevention and security ministerial cluster, which gave a briefing in the same venue immediately after Dlamini’s presser, and in response to a question with regard to the grants issue, said ministers had been briefed and were “happy” at assurances given that the grants would be paid.

She too sang from the “it’s the media’s fault” hymn sheet, saying “my appeal to the media is that this is the narrative we should send out to South Africans. The way it has been reported is sending panic to ordinary South Africans. The manner in which we are reporting is causing panic.”

She suggested that ordinary South Africans, unlike the media and “those in government”, were not necessarily concerned with “processes” and that journalists should focus on “sending the correct message to South Africa”.

The reassurance that has been given to all of us, is the money will be paid. It doesn’t matter what it takes, but the state will make sure… Our responsibility is to give social grants to our people. How it is done is another matter. If it means that money must be delivered in an alternative way… The state will do that.”

It is this revealing statement, along with Dangor’s “money trucks” reassurance, which reveals that four weeks away from the deadline, Minister Dlamini is unable to set out a clear and legal framework for the payment of grants.

On Friday the DA filed an application requesting to join the Black Sash in its application to the ConCourt that Minister Dlamini and Sassa be compelled to ensure that the rights of beneficiaries are protected when Sassa enters into a new contract with CPS.

The Black Sash is also seeking that the Constitutional Court oversee the process of social grant payments as well as provide six deliverables and timelines for Sassa and the department. In its application the Sash said “whatever oversight the minister is able and willing to provide cannot be relied upon to be adequate” and that “remarkably, South Africans have to learn what is happening on this critical issue through announcements made through the Stock Exchange”.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng asked those who were opposed to the application to respond by 16:00 on Friday, failing which Sassa will have to appear in court on March 15 to reach an agreement.

Opposing papers must be filed by 10:00 on Tuesday, March 7, and written submissions must be lodged by the Sash by noon on March 10 and by opposing parties by 16:00 on Monday, March 13.

Minister Dlamini and Sassa officials will find it difficult to dodge questions at Scopa or the ConCourt the way they shamefully attempted to do so on Sunday. Sooner or later the truth will out as to why Dlamini is so insistent on doing business with Net1 CPS and its CEO Serge Belamant. And while government might find a legal way to avert the April 1 crisis, the problem will still be far from solved. DM

Photo: Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini announces grant beneficiaries during a joint media briefing with NSFAS at Tshedimosetso House in Pretoria. South Africa. 10/01/2016. Siyabulela Duda

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