Kimberley - A senior official in the Northern Cape Department of Education, Nerina Smith, who allegedly stole R3.8 million from Child Welfare, was spending up to R28 000 a day at the Flamingo Casino in Kimberley.
The financial impact of the theft crippled the organisation in the Province, affecting thousands of children as well as halting services rendered.
It also had a massive effect on the national body, which has been forced to sell its head office building in Johannesburg.
Smith, 40, of 4 Donald Street, Utility, who is facing 158 charges of theft, was employed as a professional bookkeeper at Child Welfare. It is alleged that she transferred government money meant for programmes in the Province, into her own personal accounts at First National Bank and Standard Bank between August 2009 and December 2011.
A senior financial investigator with the National Prosecutions Authority (NPA), Jacobus Smit, testified in the Kimberley Regional Court on Monday that he had been charged with investigating the assets of Smith, including doing an analysis of her bank account at First National Bank. It is not in dispute that funds from Child Welfare were deposited into Smith’s FNB account.
“According to the bank statements, there were a total of 382 debit card purchases, totalling R1 299 500, between the period from September 2008 to November 2011, at the Flamingo Casino.”
Smith said there were also three purchases at the Grand West Casino in Cape Town totalling R9 000.
He testified that money had also been transferred from Smith’s FNB account to other accounts, but he was unable to access the account holders involved because he did not have the authority to do so. The total transfers to other banks amounted to around R260 000.
He explained that the debit card purchases at the casino meant the card was tendered at a teller point at the casino itself on the gambling floor.
“Initially the daily rate of the gambling started off at around R1 000 but this systematically increased to more frequent and larger withdrawals and sometimes as much as R28 000 a day was withdrawn at the casino.”
According to the investigator, sometimes four to five withdrawals of up to R5 000 were made on a single day.
“It eventually became a habit, and she was visiting the casino two to three times a week, if one looks at the date of the withdrawals.”
Beatrix Marais, the national director of Child Welfare South Africa, explained that the money that went missing was earmarked for a child protection programme, Isolabantwana (Eye on the Child), whereby volunteers in crèches were trained to work with vulnerable children in the Province.
“As a result of these offences, money earmarked for stipends for volunteers disappeared. Educators at crèches, who were identified to attend training in Upington, could also not participate in this training because of the lack of funds.”
She pointed out that around 300 educators had been identified for training that was intended to better the lives of little ones in the Province.
“If you consider that each teacher deals with 40 plus children, it means that approximately 12 000 children suffered directly because of the missing funds.”
Almost all Child Welfare services in the Province came to a standstill for more than six months.
“The government withdrew its subsidies and money from organisations like Lotto and other funders also didn’t materialise.
“Backers looked at the financial statements and picked up that money had disappeared, so they stopped funding projects and as a result there was no money to pay salaries.”
All social workers in the Province resigned, as did most auxiliary workers. “The offices couldn’t operate because there was no money for administration costs. In January 2012, there was only R29 000 left in the bank.”
Marais stated that the Department of Social Welfare’s relationship with Child Welfare, which had been built on trust, became non-existent.
“Eventually after much negotiations, the department agreed to continue part of our subsidy but the money was given to Famsa to administer, which meant that all Child Welfare administration services in the Province came to a standstill.
“There was no money for cars or petrol, or any accounts, like telephones or anything else.
“We are trying to pick up the pieces but it is very hard because we need to build up our relationships once again. All development programmes have also come to a standstill for the last three years due to the lack of funding.”
The situation also affected Child Welfare nationally as funders dried up.
“Our head office building will be auctioned later this month and we also had to sell another building in order to get funds to continue delivering services and paying salaries.”
Marais added that while there were procedures and policies in place to counteract fraud and theft, “but unfortunately for the amount of money that went missing, the government never did any inspection for three years. I don’t know why but for three years that process wasn’t followed and none of us in senior positions were aware that it had not been done.”
She explained that the missing money had been allocated to the government-funded Isolabantwana project. Other funds, given by USAid, for an Aids project called, Asibavikele, were not touched.
“When people asked Smith for the money earmarked for the Isolabantwana project, she told them there was no money available and asked them where they expected her to get the money from.”
Marais pointed out that the money stolen was earmarked to assist the poorest of the poor in the Province.
“In towns like Sutherland, where there are 480 families, 400 of these are on Child Welfare’s case loads.
“In the Northern Cape, the Kimberley office is the only so-called developed branches. The others are all developing. Many of these are run by auxiliary workers or community members who are training to help with child protection services, and the services we offer are for babies that are not even born yet (in adoption cases) to young people up to the age of 18 years.”
She added that although Smith’s pension fund indicated that Child Welfare could put in a claim for compensation if it obtained the necessary court order, there was only about R95 000 in the pension fund.
Smith also doesn’t have any assets.
The possibility of compensation is therefore very slight.
The defence, represented by Wiehan de Bruin, on Smith’s instruction did not cross-examine the two witnesses and also did not call any witnesses in Smith’s defence.
The case was postponed until next month and Smith was warned to appear in court on the due date.
Santie Bourquin appeared on behalf of the State.
It is believed that Smith is currently the assistant financial head of the Education Department.
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