Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini lost her cool at a press conference about the country’s looming social grants crisis when asked a series of probing questions by a journalist.
Dlamini held the media briefing on Sunday amid growing concerns that social grants will not be paid to millions of South Africans on April 1.
Dlamini has to appear before parliament’s standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) on Tuesday (07/03/2017).
She and her department have been embroiled in controversy over the likelihood that the country’s 17 million social grant recipients will not get their money at the beginning of next month because of wrangling over the contract with the company that makes the payments.
The Department of Social Development has admitted that it has no plan for making payments if the contractual impasse is not resolved.
In the past 48 hours, Dlamini has faced calls that she be criminally charged and held in contempt of a 2013 Constitutional Court order.
“She has put people in danger, she was negligent, and that is a criminal offence,” constitutional law expert Marinus Wiechers said yesterday. “It’s blatant dereliction of duty. It’s blatant criminal behaviour if you know something is wrong and you know there is a court ruling.”
He said that even if the social grants were paid on April 1, Dlamini could still face criminal charges.
“Over the past two years, she has caused a crisis due to her negligence.”
Wiechers said the potential harm she had brought to millions could form the basis of a class-action lawsuit.
On Saturday, Scopa chairman Themba Godi said Dlamini must now take full responsibility. “The department is clearly falling apart,” Godi said. “It is now becoming very difficult to explain the capability of the minister to effectively run the department and discharge her responsibilities.”
The Black Sash and the DA applied to the Constitutional Court on Friday to have Dlamini held in contempt of court.
She has for months defied the Constitutional Court, the Treasury, parliament’s oversight committee, legal opinion and the media. She failed to attend a Scopa meeting about the grants crisis last week.
On Saturday, Dlamini, President Jacob Zuma – who is widely seen as her ally – and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan met to discuss the crisis.
At the meeting, Zuma ordered Dlamini and Gordhan to resolve their differences over how the Constitutional Court order could be honoured but ensure that the 17 million grant recipients were paid on April 1.
The existing contract between the department and Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), which the Constitutional Court declared illegal in 2013, could lapse on March 31 without another service provider in place.
The contract is only in operation because the Constitutional Court suspended its declaration of invalidity to allow for the department and SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) to find a new solution. The agency has admitted that it only began negotiations with CPS on March 1.
At yesterday’s media conference, Dlamini said all grants would be paid on April 1.
She refused to answer questions on the shock resignation of department director-general Zane Dangor on Friday over what he called an irreversible breakdown in his relationship with Dlamini.
“Mr Dangor is well-respected within the sectors of social development. I am not going to discuss anything about him,” Dlamini said.
She said if Dangor wanted to make allegations about his relationship with her, that was his choice. “We are here to explain to the nation . . . It should be clear that on April 1 we are paying grants.”
Dlamini said from April this year to March 2019, the department would be in a transition phase to make grant payments while a new contract was being formulated. It is not clear if this phase includes the continued use of CPS, and, if so, whether it would be illegal.
In October, the department requested outside legal opinion.
Lawyers warned Dlamini to begin urgent negotiations with CPS and the Treasury to find a solution, and then to declare that solution to the court, Treasury and the auditor-general.
It seems, according to papers submitted to the Constitutional Court on Thursday by the department, that a “difference in opinions” hindered the department for months.
The legal opinion said a renewal of the CPS contract would definitely be unlawful, but might be the only solution to the crisis.
“We are told that Sassa does not have any choice but to enter into an interim arrangement with CPS,” the lawyers said.
Despite the legal opinion, approval was only sought from Treasury director-general Lungile Fuzile on February 7 last year to deviate from the normal competitive bidding process. It was refused.
The 2013 judgment ruled that Sassa would handle the payment of grants, which it has failed to do.
In a report submitted to the Constitutional Court last week, Sassa said it had taken advice from technical advisers who had said the plan was “overly optimistic, unrealistic and underpinned by insufficient research”.
Sassa was given the advice between August and October last year. It is unclear why so much time was wasted once the legal opinion was received. – Additional reporting by Katharine Child