Ministers May Idle for Years: "Doing Nothing is not a Crime", Says President Zuma
This hub is an installment of the series 'Noteworthy Trend of Events in South Africa'.
A social grants fiasco caused by an idling Minister
During the past two weeks, seventeen-million of South Africa’s most vulnerable people found themselves in a state of despair as they were not sure if their social grants would be paid on April 1st 2017 and beyond.
When the media reminded Bathabile Olive Dlamini, Minister of Social Development of a court ruling that was issued three years ago, which scheduled March 31st 2017 as the end of Cash Paymaster Services (CSP) constitutional obligation to distribute social grants of almost R11-bilion to seventeen million beneficiaries, Minister Dlamini responded that the beneficiaries WILL receive their grants on April 1st. When asked in Parliament, President Zuma, too, assures the country that GRANTS WILL BE PAID (by hook or by crook.)
“How are you going to do it, your honorable Minister? It is almost the end of March, and we are still waiting to see you in court, asking permission to extend the contract which allows CPS to distribute social grants. Do you realize that you have created a crisis by deliberately ignoring the court’s ruling for so long?” – eNCA journalist Karyn Maughan bombarded the minister. Watch video here...
“There is no crisis! You are causing the crisis!” Minister Dlamini insisted repeatedly during the crisis, seconded by President Zuma.
Social grants in South Africa
- Child Support Grants (at present for over twelve million children up to the age of eighteen years);
- Social Relief of Distress Grants (to people living under the breadline);
- Foster Care Grants;
- Care Dependency Grant (informal foster care)
- Old Age Grants (60 years and older).
- War Veteran Grants (for 60 years and over, or disabled, who have fought in the Second World War or the Korean War, excluding people who are already receiving a social grant in respect of him/herself.)
- Grants-in-aid (for old people and war veterans requiring attendance around-the-clock, excluding people who are in the care of an institution subsidized by the government.)
In 2006, when the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) was established, it inherited a decentralized system containing separate contracts for grant payments in every province. (South Africa has nine provinces!) Beneficiaries who preferred cash payments were served by three companies — AllPay (a subsidiary of Absa Bank), CPS and Emphilweni. Those who preferred electronic payments (roughly 60%) could choose from several banks, the Post Office, or a Sekulula account with AllPay.
If all beneficiaries of grants had their own bank account, grant payments would be a simple process. Unfortunately, roughly 40% of grant recipients want their grants in hard cash.
To pay the right social grant to the right person at the right time at the right place is an enormous challenge. Biometric technology is needed to prevent fraud, such as a national social grants register identified by automated fingerprint technology – a system that take years to design.
Is biometric technology really fraudproof?
In a report for the Center for Social Science Research, Kevin Donovan pointed out that the biometric technology itself failed to catch any "cheaters". The voice verification technology was never sophisticated enough to work effectively and has been virtually abandoned. As a result, the 60% of grant recipients who use ATMs or merchants essentially receive their grants as AllPay had proposed, without monthly verification. Only high profile investigations by the Hawks and SAPS were able to, and in fact have, exposed grant fraud syndicates.
Yet, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini continued to argue that banks should not pay social grants because they lack biometric fraud-prevention technology.
In 2011, Sassa sought to contract a single company which could "consolidate" the grant payment system and biometrically "authenticate" all grant beneficiaries.
The contract was awarded to CPS. Paying the company’s mind-bending fees - by 2016, R171.6-million per month - was not an issue, as it included the hiring and maintaining of infrastructure and premises – in total ten thousand pay points across the country - staff, travel, and stationary costs. Allegedly, using SA’s banks and/or Post Office would have been more expensive.
But then the losing tender – AllPay - claimed that SASSA had changed the criteria for biometric verification from "preferential" to "mandatory" just before the deadline. In other words, a company’s capacity to authenticate beneficiaries was no longer only required during enrolment, but on a monthly basis, as grant recipients have to show biometric "proof of life" every month in order to receive their grant.
The dispute between SASSA and AllPay went from High Court to Constitutional Court, and ended in 2014 when Judge Froneman declared SASSA’s tender procedures unconstitutional and illegal.
The court ruled that SASSA’s last minute change - reducing the number of viable bids to one – CPS – rendered the processes noncompetitive and incomparable regarding costs.
Nevertheless, the court suspended its ruling as not to compromise grant payment, and gave SASSA until end March 2017 to take over the payment function itself as originally planned.
As we approach the end of March 2017, nothing but talking and arguing has been done by the Minister of Social Development, Bathabile Dlamini. According to the legal opinion of advocate Wim Trengove, SASSA is still years away from having the capacity to take over the payment of grants.
“But, your Honorable Minister, you should be in court, asking for an extension of CPS’s illegal contract, because after March 31st, when the contract has come to an end, it would not be legally possible to extend it,” the Media reminded the Minister of her duty.
But apparently the Minister and SASSA wanted this to happen in order for them to conclude a new, and possibly illegal again, contract with CPS.
Parliament’s watchdog public accounts committee (Scopa)’s investigated the issue
Called by Scopa to explain why she did nothing about the court’s ruling, Minister Bathabile Dlamini’s arrogance shocked the country. Even when the matter was discussed in Parliament, where her conduct was condemned by the majority, the expressions on her face exposed an atrocious lack of intelligence and no comprehension of her responsibilities and the crises she has caused.
- Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu described her arrogance as "breathtaking".
- Members of SA’s leading political party – the ANC - of which Minister Dlamini is a member - labeled the situation as “embarrassing” and "unnecessary".
- (The) Sassa debacle (is) a spectacle of arrogance and ineptitude, and another example of state capture,” wrote the political editor of Business Day.
- Critics felt that the Minister's and SASSA’s failure to ask the Constitutional Court for help to ensure that social grants are being paid in a legal and cost-effective manner after CPS' contract comes to an end on March 31st , is either catastrophically incompetent or corrupt (or both).
- Scopa described the issue as ‘a crisis meant to perpetuate illegality, created by the Minister of Social Development herself.’
- Sassa’s legal teams worked overtime in an attempt to mop up the colossal mess caused through months of lies, deceit and befuddlement by Minister Bathabile Dlamini.
However, when the matter was discussed in Parliament, and members of all political parties requested President Jacob Zuma to fire the minister without delay, he defended her with the irrational anger of an infatuated lover.
“It would be a ‘very funny democracy’ when you punish someone before the crime,” he said, clearly regarding only the non-payments of grants on April 1st as a ‘crime’ and overlooking three years of doing nothing about a ruling of the court that actually challenged the competence of a Minister of Social DEVELOPMENT.
After all, Minister Bathabile Olive Dlamini is one of the president’s most loyal supporters, and in her capacity as the leader of the African National Congress Women's League (ANCWL), she is moving mountains to ensure that his ex-wife - Nkosazana_Dlamini-Zuma, currently Minister Of Home Affairs - succeeds him to the throne after his term ends in 2019.
Final order of the Constitutional Court
On February 28th , a court action was being brought by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies‚ on behalf of the Black Sash Trust. The Trust wanted the court to intervene to ensure someone is appointed to pay grants so the poor do not suffer.
On Friday, March 17th, just in time, the Constitutional Court allowed the current (illegal) contract between SASSA and CPS to continue for another twelve months to give SASSA time to appoint another company to distribute social grants, or to do it themselves.
Judge Johan Foreman’s opinion of the fiasco was not in Minister Dlamini’s favor! Some of his judgments:
- Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini placed the programme of social assistance in jeopardy through her actions;
- Dlamini had the primary responsibility to ensure Sassa did its job, as she appointed its CEO;
- There must be public accountability for how the matter was allowed to reach crisis level;
- Dlamini must explain before March 31st why she should not personally have to pay the legal costs of the parties who brought the matter to court;
- It was one of the "deepest and most shaming of ironies" that government had to rely on a private company, CPS, to resolve the predicament;
- The sole reason for the litigation was Sassa and Dlamini’s failure to keep their promise to the people of South Africa.
How difficult would it be to comply with the court's ruling?
“It would take the best of the best around 18 months minimum to be able to perform the same job that we do today, and I'm not talking about half a job, I'm not talking about cutting down the service delivery, cutting down pay points, removing biometric, going back to an electronic voucher. I'm talking about a similar system of what we have today, a pristine system. It would take at least 18 months for anybody to come into the same thing." - Executive Chairperson of CPS's parent company Net1, Serge Belamant.
However, the Post Office - one of SA state owned enterprises - maintains that it is able to take over the social grant payment system from CPS and will make itself available to government over the next 12 months.
President Zuma apologized
After the Constitutional Court’s ruling, President Zuma apologized to the country for the "undue anxiety" caused by the social grants fiasco.
“Government deeply regrets the undue anxiety that resulted from the uncertainty over grant distribution. We apologize to South Africans unreservedly.”
He directed an Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) on Comprehensive Social Security, which he will lead and chair himself, to ensure that the order of the court be implemented efficiently and diligently and in its entirety. This committee will assist Cabinet in moving the process forward.
And Minister Bathabile Olive Dlamini? Let me allow her to speak for herself -
Opinion of an owfma-sa
Following a crisis like this is like watching a captivating movie. My emotions get whipped-up until it finally settled in sadness because people are vulnerable victims of their circumstances. Each and every one of us copes to the best of our ability. Too many shortcomings and obstacles prevent us from becoming the perfect creatures we all would like to be.
I feel sad on behalf of all the 'losers', and happy on behalf of all the 'winners'.
I believe that this social grants debacle was only another step the people of South Africa had to take in order to reach their goal of being the best democracy this world has ever seen. Perhaps we will reach this goal in 2030, or in 2050, or in the next century; what really matters is today and our capacity to move forward in the right direction.
My best wishes to all who are tasked with the responsibility to move South Africa and its people FORWARD. After all, I am an owfma-sa - an ordinary white female middle-aged South African. My only duty is to pray:
'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.'"