Sassa officials and Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini faced a pummelling by members of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts in Parliament on Tuesday with regard to preparations to take over grant payments by 2018 as well as the agency’s R1.1-billion January 2017 closing balance in irregular expenditure. Dlamini also attempted to justify why, as a Cabinet minister, she had got Sassa to foot the bill for private security for her children. There were sweaty heads and furrowed brows all round. By MARIANNE THAMM.
Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) flexed its muscles on Tuesday with ANC member Mnyamezeli Booi warning Sassa officials and Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini, “We are going to be on your case every week. We will not be submissive to you. In 12 months we want results.”
Dlamini, who had attended the first hour of the presentation by Sassa officials to Scopa on plans for taking the grant payment system in-house, slipped out to attend another meeting and missed much of the earlier heat. She returned an hour later to find the flames had been turned up a notch and soon found herself in the hot seat, having to answer to an amount of around R1-million (part of a R3.5-million bill) spent on VIP protection services, paid for by Sassa and approved by former Sassa CEO, Virginia Petersen, as well as former DG Coceko Pakade.
The EFF’s Veronica Mente wanted to know why the VIP protection had been necessary and what had informed the decision to “protect people who are not part and parcel of the department, like the children of the minister”. Mente added that if the money had been spent “in vain” it had to be repaid.
“So who is paying and when is it being paid? You were all here with us on 23 November last year. Six months down the line there is still no finalisation on the amount,” said Mente.
Dlamini replied by reading out part of a police report that had recommended that her spokesperson Lumka Oliphant be provided with “necessary security measures” by the Department of Social Development to “mitigate any possible risks to her physical security”. Oliphant and her family were provided with private bodyguards. Dlamini did not elaborate on what these apparent threats to Oliphant’s security might have been.
With regard to her children’s protection, Dlamini suggested that “some people understand government more than others” and that when her children had received a phone call “from someone in prison” and there had been three break-ins at her home (under the noses of the SAPS), she had discussed security issues with the then DG Pakade as well as then adviser Zane Dangor (who was later appointed DG).
She said Pakade had wanted to use “in-house” security but after the break-ins both Pakade and Dangor had agreed to procure private security “because government processes take a long period”.
But Mente was having none of it.
“When the security that came from the department arrived at your house to be additional security, did you inform the department that what you are doing is irregular because according to the scope of department you are not in the department? You are a Cabinet minister. So your protection is on SAPS… not from the department. Did you inform them they should not be doing what they are doing or you took over the security?” asked Mente.
Dlamini replied that she had not and that the private security detail had accompanied her children to school until the SAPS were deployed.
“The security that was there was for my kids because I thought I was safer than them,” replied Dlamini.
“I get you, minister, but the problem here is it’s your children. You are a Cabinet minister. You are not an employee of the department and therefore that means your children cannot be protected by the department. If they have to be protected they can only be protected by the SAPS, not by the department,” Mente continued.
Speaking to the matter, Sassa CFO Tsakeriwa Chauke said that Sassa had sent a final claim on 1 March this year to the department from Sassa for the amount spent on private security for the minister’s children.
“We are awaiting the department’s response in terms of the payment of such an amount,” said Chauke.
Earlier in the day Booi had chastised Sassa officials for a presentation that he and other members felt lacked granular detail, particularly in terms of costing the process of taking the grants in-house as well as with regard to what concrete steps had been taken by the agency to ensure that the process would not again result in a potential national crisis.
“The ConCourt has spoken and we are here to make sure its orders get implemented. Do us a favour, we are not going to go away. We are going to hold you accountable. You have to deliver,” Booi thundered.
It was around then that embattled Sassa CEO Thokozani Magwaza pulled out his white handkerchief and wiped his sweating brow.
Magwaza had earlier told the committee that Sassa was due to meet with the South African Post Office on Wednesday for an all-day workshop with regard to what SAPO could offer Sassa in future and to determine which aspects might have to go out on tender.
The IFP’s Mkhuleko Hlengwa replied, “I am not buying this workshop thing. Can we be told what this workshop will be about? The department and Sassa have been here before, dragging their feet. This is work that should have been done a long time ago.”
“It’s the details we need,” said Godi.
“Those are details we don’t have,” replied Magwaza.
The Sassa CEO added he had no idea how Minister Dlamini had come up with the figure of R6-billion on May 11 when she had told members of the Committee on Social Development that this was the price tag for Sassa’s taking over the payment of grants. Dlamini had suggested that this should be viewed as “an investment”. The amount would require a deviation from Treasury as it had not been factored into the budget.
While Dlamini was out of the room the Democratic Alliance’s David Ross said that it appeared as if Sassa had not yet come up with a co-ordinated plan and that the minister had once again “dodged responsibility” as the political head.
“There is no co-ordination at Sassa. We can’t have a briefing like this with the minister leaving. We only have a vague idea, no idea of the budget, no idea of what your interaction with Treasury has been,” said Ross.
Magwaza defended himself, saying he did not expect the committee to call Sassa to the meeting and had only been informed of it last week. He asked for two weeks in order to prepare and file a report on progress to the ConCourt as well as report back to Scopa.
Asked by Committee Chair Themba Godi as to the status of his relationship with Minister Dlamini – “you can take us into your confidence the way you took the ConCourt into confidence” – Magwaza replied that “we talk every day”.
Quizzed about the affidavit he had submitted in the Black Sash CPS ConCourt application and disputing Dlamini’s version of events leading to the Sassa crisis, Magwaza said he had done so “because I needed to defend myself. I arrived on November 1, I was not responsible and cannot be blamed for things I have not done.”
He was also probed about the controversial R40-million workstreams set up by Dlamini and which had circumvented the Sassa executive and had reported only to her. The R40-million had also not been approved by Treasury.
“We are in charge. We are still paying them. We need value for that money. On 31 May they will be given notice that we will terminate the contracts,” said Magwaza.
Scopa has been attempting to quiz the minister and Sassa officials with regard to Sassa’s massive R1.1-billion in irregular expenditure for several months but the issue kept getting sidelined by the impending SassaGate debacle earlier this year.
On Tuesday the committee finally began to ask serious questions but received few comprehensive replies.
It was Magwaza’s predecessor, Dr Virginia Petersen, whose name rang out in a constant refrain on Tuesday.
“Where is Virginia Petersen? Is she overseas?” asked Booi.
“We need to subpoena Virginia Petersen,” said Hlengwa.
Godi responded that he had instructed Parliament’s legal secretary to try to track her down but “we have been unable to locate her contacts”.
The DA’s Tim Brauteseth told Magwaza, “The wrong person is here. Unlike politicians, you can go to jail because you are the accounting officer.”
It was Petersen who had signed off on a R316-million contract for CPS to re-register grant beneficiaries and which had been declared irregular by Treasury when it withdrew condonation for the contract. The R316-million represents a major chunk of the R1.1-billion of Sassa’s irregular expenditure.
Corruption Watch instituted a legal challenge in the high court in 2015 with regard to the payment made to CPS in 2014, two months after it had submitted a claim for enrolling more beneficiaries than it had been contracted to. It was Petersen who had accepted the claim “at face value” and had paid it to CPS. Corruption Watch is seeking to have the payment reversed.
Last week Sassa inexplicably withdrew its two-year opposition to the Corruption Watch challenge and committee members on Tuesday wanted to know why and also who would be paying for the costly legal fees incurred in the matter.
Magwaza said that he had sought an opinion from Sassa’s legal office and had been informed that it would not be prudent to defend the matter and so “we withdrew our opposition to Corruption Watch”. The committee heard that a legal bill of around R100,000 had been sent to Sassa for the matter.
“We will abide by what the court come ups with. It would be irrational for us to defend something perhaps we were not supposed to,” added Magwaza.
Brauteseth wanted to know whether Sassa was contemplating taking civil action against Petersen for approving the deal with CPS. There was no reply to the question.
Committee members also heard that some of the R1.1-billion in fruitless expenditure was incurred by Sassa officials who crashed cars, who had failed to turn up for hotel or accommodation bookings (in one case for seven days), and for traffic fines.
“Give us the cases,” Godi ordered Sassa.
“Why would officials be driving recklessly and get fines?” asked Mente.
Scopa has put Sassa and DSD officials on notice, calling for detailed and comprehensive reports on all matters to the committee when they are next called to appear.
“Parliament does not have the energy to babysit you. That is where we are,” said Booi. DM
Photo: Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) announce how NSFAS will assist social grant beneficiaries who pass their matric and are accepted at institutions of higher learning, 10 Jan 2017. (Photo: GCIS)