Sipho Khumalo

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A NATIONAL resolution – apparently adopted five years ago by the premiers of all nine provinces – means that no action can be taken against civil servants found to have illegally helped themselves to social grants.

Instead, the stolen amounts have been converted into loans, which the officials repay without incurring interest or penalties, and no legal action is taken against them.

Members of the parliamentary standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) in the KwaZulu-Natal legislature were “shocked beyond belief” yesterday to learn of the existence of the national resolution, which prevents provinces from firing civil servants involved in fleecing the government of millions of rand.

This emerged when Scopa members demanded to know why so many people were being brought before disciplinary committees for acts of grant fraud, with few convictions or dismissals resulting.

Primrose Khumalo, deputy director-general in the office of the premier, told members that the province’s hands were “tied” by a national resolution which prevented such people from being fired.

Instead, civil servants who were found to have illegally accessed social grants were made to sign letters acknowledging their debts to the government, and the money they had stolen was converted into interest-free loans.

Once this arrangement had been made, the thieves retained their jobs and remained in the public service.

It emerged that this policy had apparently been adopted at a meeting of premiers about five years ago after it emerged that nationally there were 45 000 civil servants (including 22 000 in KZN) who had stolen grants.

According to the premier’s office, they were mainly employed in the health and education departments. It was feared there would be a huge shortage of teachers and health workers if they were fired.

It also emerged that some civil servants facing disciplinary action over the grants had resigned from their government jobs before the cases were resolved, only to be employed in other government departments.

And the problems persists. A report tabled before the committee yesterday indicates that as of August 31, 3 644 cases of people fraudulently accessing social grants had been recorded by the Special Investigating Unit in KZN.

“Of these, 3 136 cases have been finalised while 508 cases have not yet been finalised,” said KZN director-general Nhlanhla Ngidi in the report.

The issue of the resolution triggered an angry reaction from Scopa members, who said it undermined whatever measures were in place to inculcate a culture of integrity within the public service.

“It is shocking that someone who has been receiving social grants fraudulently has the amount converted into a loan.

“Where is the integrity here? How can it be treated as if it is a loan?

“How do you convert fraud into a loan?” asked Scopa chairwoman Makhosi Khoza.

She said the argument that there would be a shortage of teachers if those found to have stolen grants were fired, was shocking.

“We may as well close Scopa and legalise fraud. Clearly we are not going to promote a culture of integrity as this (resolution) undermines morality,” she said, adding that the premier’s office should submit a full report on the policy.

“We will need a comprehensive report on what led to this policy. We cannot leave these things as they are; we will have to confront it. If needs be, this committee is going to champion a policy revision on this matter,” said Khoza.

ACDP MPL Jo-Ann Downs said the policy sent out the message that corruption was okay.

“It means you just have to pay it back, and it is right. What stops other servants from also doing it, and (when caught) saying ‘we will pay it back’?” she asked.

ANC MPL Sipho Gcabashe said the committee needed a proper briefing on the policy.

“We have to get to the bottom of this decision, which has created a crisis here,” he said.

The committee decided to write a resolution to find out the basis for formulating the policy.