'I first knew there was a problem in my department when I read about it in Noseweek'– minister says.
An inquiry mandated by the Constitutional Court into whether Social Development minister Bathabile Dlamini should be held personally liable for legal fees in the grants crisis, turned up at least one unassailable truth: only after reading Noseweek did Dlamini realise that there was a serious problem with her department’s planning programme.
This admission by Dlamini, (who elected to speak in Zulu through a translator) was made to the inquiry panel headed by retired Judge Bernard Ngoepe at the Office of the Chief Justice in Midrand, Johannesburg.
|Could've knocked me over: Social Development minister Bathabile Dlamini is astonished to read about difficulties in her ministry|
In July 2016 Noseweek forecast that the SA Social Security Agency (SASSA) intended to miss the key 1 April 2017 deadline to migrate grant payments away from Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), a subsidiary of the US-based Net1 Group. The plan at the time was that payments would be moved in-house to the agency.
The CPS contract had already been ruled invalid in a 2014 Constitutional Court judgment, but was due to end only on 31 March 2017. The April 2017 deadline set by the ConCourt was to allow SASSA time to call for new tenders from private contractors or find an alternative solution. The court knew it had to avoid jeopardising the monthly payment of 17 million grants for child support, pensions and disability, totalling R11 billion a month.
Key questions that have persistently stewed in this scandal were:
• Why did the minister, in addition to SASSA’s own planning staff, set up parallel, unregulated so-called workstreams at huge cost – R40m – to handle the migration?
• Why was the process – which flouted National Treasury’s own procurement rules – so secretive?
• And why was Parliament repeatedly misled?
It has long been Noseweek’s contention that Dlamini never planned to get rid of CPS and was deliberately delaying and sowing confusion to make sure that CPS could not be excluded from future tenders.
It was on day two of the inquiry when Judge Ngoepe asked Dlamini whether the inference was correct that, as late as October 2016, she and her department were still under the impression they would meet the deadline, that she replied: “At the time, the main concern was that everybody had to do what they were responsible for.
“It’s a pity I did not consider that it would become critical now, and I remember there is a magazine that I read that was talking about just how far behind we were.
“It was after that article that I went to raise the concern with former Social Development Director General Zane Dangor. I remember [the magazine] was Noseweek.”
On day three, advocate Richard Solomon SC, representing former acting SASSA CEO Thokozani Magwaza, decided to press Dlamini further on the subject:
Solomon: I think you said yes-terday… you first got to learn about the possibility of the deadline not being achievable from an article in Noseweek. Is that correct?
Dlamini: It was one of the sources of information; a periodical that I read indicated that we will not be able to meet the deadline. And I also mentioned that the workstreams had already started mentioning that we were very unlikely to meet the deadline.
Solomon: And that is why you called a meeting on 5 October 2016 with the workstreams. Is that correct?
Dlamini: [Long pause] Yes.
Solomon: Of course I see that there are some numerous photos of you in the [Noseweek] article, and I see it is dated 1 July 2016.
Dlamini: This periodical is not a legal document or departmental document or government document.
Solomon: Some targets of this journal will say it is an illegal publication [Laughter – even the habitually grim Bathabile cracks a small, most unusual smile]. But that’s not my question – you’re quite right, it’s not official, it’s the alternate press, but you have referenced it. It was one of the sources of information to you that things were not as they should be and that the process was not on track?
Dlamini: Yes, that was the reason I had to go to SASSA [in October 2016] to find out what was happening there, as a result of the article.
The inquiry will hear closing arguments in March.
• Asked to explain his derogatory description of this worthy and upstanding publication as “illegal” and “alternative” (could it be said that truth-speaking in South Africa today is “alternative” rather than mainstream?), Solomon said he thought he was promoting Noseweek. Bathabile did a better job of that by suggesting we were a reliable source of hard-to-come-by information. – Ed.
Watch the exchange here:
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