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Sassa debacle: A whole lot of wink-wink going on?

Opinion
It is inconceivable how the government could have allowed the social grant matter to develop into a crisis of epic proportions, writes Lebogang Seale.

At about this time four years ago, KwaZulu-Natal Agriculture MEC Meshack Radebe raised the ire of opposition parties, notably the DA, when he told people not to use social grants if they didn’t vote for the ANC.

The Sunday Independent’s sister paper, The Star, reported on April 9, 2014 that he had told those who received social welfare grants but voted for opposition political parties that they were stealing from the government. [READ MORE HERE]

Radebe said: “Nxamalala (President Zuma) has increased grants, but there are people who are stealing them by voting for opposition parties.” He was speaking in Greytown in Zuma’s presence.

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There’s something suspicious about Minister Dlamini and Sassa’s persistence with the CPS deal annulled by the court, says the writer.

It was just one of the many instances where the governing party was accused of using social grants as a bait for votes.

In an ironic twist last week, the ANC-led government and Zuma faced an onslaught on the legal and political fronts for bungling the social grants contract. In Parliament on Thursday, Zuma incurred the wrath of opposition parties. They demanded answers about how his executive could have allowed what should be routine government business to develop into a crisis.

On Tuesday, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini appeared in Parliament. The following day, Dlamini seemed the main villain in the crude plot around the shoddy and dodgy deal between social security agency Sassa and the service provider, Cash Paymaster Services.

This was as civil society lobby groups The Black Sash and Right2Know, which were joined by Freedom Under Law and Corruption Watch, fought to expose the rot and to ensure that beneficiaries were not left in the lurch come April 1.

It was an eventful and bruising week for the government, but the bashing it suffered seemed beyond imagination, given that social grants have been the ANC’s foremost signature success project after RDP houses.

Amid the crisis, the scenes in Parliament and the Constitutional Court were not short of real-life slapstick comedy. Zuma’s demeanour was of a man living in a make-believe world, thrice removed from reality.

As the discontent around the social Sassa debacle and Dlamini’s suitability to hold office grew louder, Zuma dismissed that as “isiphithiphithi” (commotion) that didn’t warrant his reining in his errant minister.

In Zuma’s world, the nation must wait until the looming crisis unravels before one acts.

He said: “This is another kind of democracy that if you expect someone is going to make a mistake or is going to fail, that person must be punished before it happens. It’s a funny democracy.

“I thought the date we are talking about has not arrived? April 1. There’s no crisis.”

Here was Zuma again, unperturbed and sticking to his tried-and-tested formula.

He didn’t sound like a man who had taken notice of how Dlamini and Sassa had come in for criticism in the Constitutional Court for their inept handling of the Sassa contract. The questions by the justices and the legal representatives of Black Sash and Freedom Under Law penetrated into the heart of the crisis and were scathing of the government’s incompetence.

“The consequences could be more catastrophic than we have the capacity to imagine,” warned Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

“How do you get the level where (your clients) make themselves look like they are incompetent and you can’t even explain how you got to his point?

“How did we get to this level that can be characterised as absolute incompetence?” he asked advocate Andrew Breitenbach, SC for Sassa and Dlamini.

“It sounds like (the minister) sat idly and waited to be informed. Why? One expects that the minister would have had her finger on the pulse,” said Justice Mbuyiseli Madlanga.

“This is a crisis. We must do whatever we can to intervene to ensure that we don’t proliferate the crisis,” said Justice Mogoeng.

If the president were, perhaps, not too trusting of the courts, he should have taken note of the glaring contradictions in Dlamini’s assertions that there was no crisis and CPS’s statements that the grants would not be paid on April 1 if the contract was not signed by last Wednesday.

But then expecting Zuma to intervene and read the riot act to his minister might be naive. A quote echoed the Concourt ruling on the Nkandla matter at almost this time last last year.

“The painful truth is that the executive failed to meet its obligation. The painful truth is that Parliament has failed to exercise its oversight,” said advocate Geoff Budlender SC, for Black Sash.

Just like her boss, Dlamini’s actions have been nothing short of a farce. She too does not seem to realise the gravity of the situation and has maintained the same lackadaisical attitude towards what has been a self-inflicted problem.

As she was being bashed for her culpability in the crisis inside the court, she continued with her conceited nature, clinging to her belief that the crisis was a creation of “the prophets of doom”. She remains adamant that the grants will be paid on April 1 “and beyond”.

The president and Dlamini are not alone in their clumsy, comical response to the Sassa debacle. As Dlamini and Sassa were being exposed in the Concourt for allegedly flouting their responsibility to the poorest and most vulnerable in society, and for outsourcing social grants for profiteering, ANC Women’s League supporters cheered and chanted outside the gates of the Concourt.

They were unmistakable in expressing their love and devotion for Dlamini: “I believe in Dlamini” and “She has never lied to us”.

It is inconceivable how the government could have allowed the matter to develop into a crisis of epic proportions.

There’s something suspicious about Dlamini and Sassa’s persistence with the CPS deal annulled by the court. Apart from Sassa and CPS refusing to disclose the details of their deal, Dlamini and Sassa have tried to sidestep the court by requesting that the offices of the Public Protector and the Auditor-General oversee the contract.

Dlamini would have learnt from the Concourt that while this is a politically charged stand-off that tests the court’s powers, the court is left with no option but to intervene when confronted with political delinquency, as constitutional expert Pierre de Vos says.

“Courts are reluctant to challenge the political branches of the state head on. But, in certain circumstances, like the present, the Constitutional Court stands to lose more by trying to avoid a confrontation.

“Instead, it stands to gain more credibility and legitimacy if it manages to confront the impunity of Sassa and the Minister of Social Development,” he told the Conversation last week.

Political analyst Susan Booysen says the fact that the matter ended in the apex court shows a collapse of governance pervading departments and state-owned entities. She believes the president’s reluctance to act against incompetent and corrupt public officials is rooted in factional politics.

“The president is able to do something about it but he doesn’t want to because this is a person who does as the president pleases (and) runs Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s election campaign,” she says.

“The favour he’s doing her (Dlamini) is disproportionate to the damage she is doing to him, the ANC and the government. Even worse, he’s not removing her. I can only imagine that there’s a lot of wink-wink going on.”

Another political analyst, Lesiba Teffo, agrees: “He’s a man beholden to factions. If those who err, fail or are recalcitrant fall within his camp, he wouldn’t find it easy to act against them.

“It’s not even incompetence but sheer disregard for the law of the state and their constitutional duties.”

The Sunday Independent

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