Opinionista Marianne Merten 24 January 2021

Where ministerial accountability is not washed away by police water cannon

From 2012 the tax department accused 20,000 families of fraud – mostly incorrectly filled-in forms – and cancelled childcare allowances. Many families, forced to repay what had incorrectly been deemed overpaid allowances, were driven to financial ruin.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

On 15 January, the government of The Netherlands resigned. A month earlier the Dutch parliament had issued a scathing report on how thousands of families that received childcare social grants were – incorrectly – hounded by the Dutch tax authority as fraudsters.

The MPs’ report, “Unprecedented Injustice”, according to NL Times and The Guardian, outlines how from 2012 the tax department accused 20,000 families of fraud – mostly incorrectly filled-in forms – and cancelled childcare allowances. Many families, forced to repay what had incorrectly been deemed overpaid allowances, were driven to financial ruin. Twelve families instituted court action.

Even before the wholesale resignation of the Dutch cabinet, or Council of Ministers, Economic Affairs Minister Eric Wiebes had handed in his. The parliamentary report identified him as one of those responsible: as junior finance minister he had been in charge of the tax authority. The then social assistance minister, Ledewijk Asscher, resigned as leader of the Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid) two months before elections.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte has accepted political responsibility for the scandal at a media briefing. But, given the need for stability amid the Covid-19 pandemic, he had argued for his coalition government’s survival until the 17 March 2021 elections.

It was not to be. On 15 January the Dutch government resigned over the damning parliamentary report. Okay, strictly speaking, ministers stay on as “demissionary” cabinet members, or caretakers.

In South Africa, despite copious ministerial cock-ups, no one has ever resigned. Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu is no different.

The most vulnerable and poorest South Africans sleep overnight at social grants offices countrywide to try to get assistance, regardless of the restrictions of the Covid-19 lockdown – Saturday marks Day 303.

That’s because apparently only the first 150 are helped on any given day. These vulnerable South Africans must find scarce rands and cents to get themselves to these South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) offices to find out why grants were not paid, how to reapply for lapsed grants like the temporary disability one, or to get updates on an application.

That’s because online and telephonic access is faulty, at best, with key documents like the temporary disability form not available on the Sassa website. Officials knew the Sassa call centre did not have enough capacity – and admitted this at Wednesday’s parliamentary briefing, dubbed “Interventions on overcrowding at social grants offices”.

Now the call centre is outsourced, but because of training, it’s only expected to be fully operational next week.

On 15 January, the police turned water cannon on hundreds of vulnerable and poor social grant hopefuls queuing at the Sassa offices in Bellville, Cape Town.

One would have thought a parliamentary committee, broadcast live, would be a most appropriate place for a ministerial apology for this brutalisation. But no.

“I only got into the Casspir, simply because we did not have a loudhailer … I only got there because I wanted to use the communications of the police,” Zulu told MPs, adding she would never run away, but was already inside the Sassa offices when police used the water cannon.

“This Lindiwe Daphne Zulu can never, ever ask police to spray people … I can never be found in a space like that … I told police to stop what they were doing.”

Ministers and officials have aced blame shifting. They are masters of PowerPoint presentations in which verbosity trumps solutions and real implementation. And MPs showboat, rather than being prepared to hold ministers and officials to account as the Constitution requires. When Parliament has issued hard-hitting reports – such as the 2016 SABC inquiry and 2018 Eskom State Capture – these are ignored.

No apology for police water cannoning of social grant seekers was demanded. No apology was offered, never mind a resignation to finally take responsibility for brutalisation by the state, delivery failure and ineptitude.

This must change. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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All Comments 3

  • This is the same Zulu, who throughout her stay in parliament has openly and repeatedly displayed an appetite for pugilistic conduct. Expecting anything different, would be like asking a leopard to change its spots ! Character is not something you can change… without enormous or extraordinary effort !

  • At the end of the day, unfortunately as things have turned out, the buck stops with Ramaphosa. And he does not have the backbone to do anything about it.

  • This woman is a real lulu. A wannabe Che Guevara, haute couture style. One can see she’s throwing a lot of money at it, but she really needs a better guru.

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