President Jacob Zuma and his Cabinet have moved to defend embattled Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini over the social grant fiasco, with the president saying there is no crisis and that it would be jumping the gun to act against Dlamini before April 1.
He, however, expressed regret over “the current situation” saying the government would ensure that there was never again any apprehension with regard to the payments of social grants. Zuma sought to assure social grants beneficiaries that there would be no interruption and people would get their money at the end of this month.
“Lessons will be learnt from the current unfortunate episode to ensure there is no recurrence. We will ensure a solution is found that is compliant with our BEE imperatives and all our laws,” he said.
Besides referring to the grants debacle as an “unfortunate episode” in his prepared text, Zuma also labelled the saga “isiphithiphithi” (commotion) as he explained – off the cuff – why it could not be used as the basis for evaluating Dlamini’s performance.
Zuma described as a “funny democracy” the one that expected him to take action against Dlamini on the suspicion that she might fail. The president seemed to be basing his argument on the fact that grants would be paid beyond March 31 and not on how they would be paid.
“I thought the date we are talking about has not arrived, the 1st of April. This is another kind of democracy that if you suspect that somebody is going to fail or make a mistake you must punish that person before it happens; it’s a funny democracy,” said Zuma.
“It’s one thing for people to raise an issue that we are likely to get into trouble – that things may not be done; but to act as if the first [April 1] has come and grants have not been given, therefore action must be taken, I say it’s a funny democracy; punish the person before they fail …”
Zuma said he had been briefed by ministers about what they had been doing including that there were tenders that were put out by Sassa but were not taken up. But he did not know about the illegal deductions by CPS and linked companies.
He clashed badly with United Democratic Movement’s Bantu Holomisa on this point, with Holomisa going as far as accusing Zuma of lying, which is frowned upon in Parliament decorum. Holomisa suggested that the government approach the courts to try and recoup the money that had been illegally deducted from grant beneficiaries. He added that the deductions were continuing “as we speak”.
Zuma challenged Holomisa to bring evidence that money was deducted, saying he was not aware of it.
“If I am going to investigate or do anything, I need evidence. I don’t know from which bank the money was deducted from, under which conditions or how.
“If this is true, you must bring evidence. I have no interest in rumours. How do you know the money is being deducted while you are sitting here? That can’t be true,” said Zuma.
An angry Holomisa accused Zuma of covering up for CPS, and of lying.
Earlier in the day, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe – responsible for performance, monitoring and evaluation – told journalists that he was the convener of a ministerial task team mandated with ensuring that social grants were paid from April 1.
Radebe revealed that the task team – made up of Dlamini, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, Science and Technology’s Naledi Pandor, Home Affairs’ Malusi Gigaba, State Security’s David Mahlobo and Telecommunications’ Siyabonga Cwele – had already met three times and one of its decisions was to stop the discussions between CPS and Sassa.
The task team has also been mandated to seek legal advice on the “viability of more legal action by the state, especially in addressing unlawful and irregular conduct where necessary”; reviewing the conduct of Sassa especially in relation to its administrative capacity and management and making a recommendation; developing a "contingent" plan; and devising a comprehensive institutionalised payment system for grants.
Radebe said Dlamini’s presence in the task team did not present any conflict of interest but that it was important for her to be part of the team because she had the most information.
He evaded questions on Dlamini’s responsibility in the crisis or possible sanction, saying the issue of responsibility would only come at a later stage when the ministerial task team had looked at all issues surrounding the matter.