While Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini skipped a Sassa presentation to Scopa on Tuesday to attend, instead, the launch at Constitutional Hill of a mobile app, new acting interim CEO, Pearl Bhengu, braved a barrage of tough questions from sceptical and crabby committee members. While Bhengu held her ground admirably, chair Themba Godi said Scopa was concerned that offcials were not serious about using SAPO to pay grants and were deliberately dragging out the process so that CPS would have to once again come to the rescue. By MARIANNE THAMM.
Scopa is a bit of a lion’s den when it comes to officials having to acocunt to committee members. They’re bulldogs, some less irascible than others, which is why former CEO Thokozani Magwazi often mopped his brow with a white handkerchief while facing a grilling.
When it comes to Sassa, however, Scopa members have seen it all. They were there in the white heat when the country was taken to the brink in March this year when it became increasingly clear that Sassa, in spite of assurances that all was well, was nowhere near ready to take over the payment of social grants to 17-million vulnerable South Africans.
“They held an AK47 to our heads,” the EFF’s Ntombovuyo Mente said of the debacle.
Instead the US listed Net1/CPS, whose profits from the deal with Sassa totalled around R1-billion and whose contract was illegally awarded, was granted by the Constitutional Court an emergency extension, under strict conditions, to perform the vital job.
Minister of Social Security Bathabile Dlamini’s reputation took a further knock (not that she seemed perturbed at all) and she will still have to face an inquiry – headed by retired judge Bernard Ngoepe – to determine her liability in the crisis and whether she should be personally responsible for legal costs.
On Tuesday newly ensconced CEO Pearl Bhengu faced her baptism of fire in committee room V454, reporting back on Sassa’s progress in relation to the ConCourt ruling. Bhengu was appointed by Dlamini after Magwaza’s sudden and unexpected resignation as CEO in July. He spent only 12 turbulent months in the job.
In those 12 months Magwaza was plunged, head first, into the Constitutional Court action brought by the Black Sash when it became apparent Sassa would not be ready to take in-house the payment of social grants to 17-million beneficiaries and that CPS would continue to benefit from the illegally awarded tender.
Magwaza also had to deal with the resignation of his ally, Department of Social Development Director-General Zane Dangor, as well as constant attempts to undermine his work by Minister Dlamini. After Dlamini had blamed Magwaza for Sassa’s failure he filed a responding affidavit to the ConCourt revealing that workstreams appointed by the minister at the cost of around R47-million reported directly to her and undermined the work of the Sassa executive.
Before his departure Magwaza had formalised a deal with the South African Post Office for it to act as a “Solution Integrator/Service Aggregator to pay social grants on a Build Operate and Transfer model over a period not exeeding five years”.
SAPO CEO Mark Barnes has subsequently written to Bhengu acknowledging that the arrangement between Sassa and SAPO is “transitional” and that it did not mean that SAPO was “taking over the payment function permanently”.
For someone who has only been in the hot seat for about two weeks, Bhengu, while attempting to provide satisfactory replies to committee members, on Tuesday came across as competent, sincere and willing to acknowledge weaknesses, mistakes and potential future pitfalls in the process.
She told the commitee that the panel of experts that had been appointed by the Constitutional Court to oversee the process had met with Sassa officials and that a workshop had been held with SAPO.
In the meantime, a contract would be signed with SAPO by September but Sassa had not yet assessed what exactly it is that SAPO is able to provide.
She said the controversial workstreams had been disbanded and final reports had been filed.
The DA’s Tim Brauteseth was curious as to whether Sassa would be using any of the recommendations by the workstreams as taxpayers had paid R47-million for these and this could be viewed as fruitless and wasteful expenditure if none of the findings was implemented. Bhengu agreed to report back on this.
Current projects that were being undertaken, said Bhengu, were the establishment of a corporate bank account which could transfer money directly to beneficiaries, and the migration of biometric data (which had been completed). A letter would soon be sent to CPS to retrieve all beneficiary information when the contract expires, she added.
Sassa’s payment transition manager Zodwa Mvulane told the committee that Sassa did not have the requisite skills to embark on the project of taking the payment in-house (including the legal and IT expertise).
Bhengu said that the issue of the lack of expertise had been discussed – “we have seen the gaps” – and that Sassa had been in talks with Treasury to find a way of setting about properly procuring experts who had been part of the workstreams.
The IFP’s Mkhuleko Hlengwa asked Bhengu directly, “I want to know, will you meet the deadline as prescribed by the Constitutional Court so that we know now. I don’t want a situation where on 22 March there is a mad rush.”
Bhengu replied with an emphatic, “Yes”.
Hlengwa said while he accepted this, he could not shake the sense that there was not a firm commitment by Sassa “to rid itself of the shackles of CPS”.
“We don’t want the risk of CPS coming in the back window.”
The EFF’s Ntombovuyo Mente also accused Sassa of using “delaying tactics” and said that if this was not addressed “we will find ourselves on 31 March with CPS again”. This time Sassa would blame SAPO for the mess, said Mente.
Godi on behalf of Scopa later issued a statement expressing concern that the open tender process Sassa would follow to procure service providers to cover those areas the post office could not “may open the door once more to controversial Cash Paymaster Services (CPS).”
“The committee heard that once SAPO’s bid has been evaluated and adjudicated, Sassa will know the extent of services that SAPO is unable to provide. These services will then go on open tender. MPs express concern that this ‘leaves the window open’ for CPS to enter the fray again.”
The committee also noted, said Godi, that Sassa had approximately 10,000 paypoints while SAPO had only around 2,0o0. Sassa had requested that other points of payment, like supermarkets and commercial banks, remain in place to ensure that beneficiaries are paid after the Constitutional Court deadline of the end of March 2018.
Godi said he did not get the sense that Sassa was “enthusiastically embracing” SAPO.
“It seems it is not really about what SAPO can’t do, but rather you deciding that SAPO won’t be able to do.”
Scopa will meet again with Sassa on 5 September when the evaluation and adjudication of SAPO’s bid would have been finalised.
Members called for the minister to be present even though she has stated that she prefers to account to the Portfolio Committee on Social Development (where ANC members treat her with kid gloves) rather than face a grilling at Scopa (where ANC members are not afraid to sizzle with gas.) DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma with Minister Bathabile Dlamini during the 2017 National Women’s Day held at the Galeshewe Stadium, Kimberly in the Northern Cape under the theme ‘The year of OR Tambo Women United in moving South Africa Forward’. (Photo: GCIS)