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[OPINION] Dlamini plays fast and loose with the poor

On Monday morning as the Sassa issue was reaching crisis proportions, Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini’s spokesperson was trying to explain what the minister could not in her own rather disastrous press briefing on Sunday.

There was a twist, of course. Lumka Oliphant refused to speak English when interviewed by morning talk-show host Xolani Gwala on Radio 702. The interview was ended abruptly, a decision that the radio station has rightly defended. Speaking English on 702 did not preclude Oliphant from being interviewed on every single other indigenous language radio station, so her argument – if one can call it that- was disingenuous.

In January the same Oliphant took to Facebook to defend Dlamini’s rambling speech where people questioned the minister’s sobriety and said the media should stop ‘talking sh**’ about the minister.
Did we hear correctly? Did Oliphant actually use an expletive defending her boss?

But we live in an age of impunity, where anything goes and probably the least of our problems is that a spokesperson used foul language.

While Dlamini and her spokesperson were evading questions, the Sassa issue has now reached a tipping point with the 1 April deadline looming. But, it did not have to be this way.

The Constitutional Court declared the awarding of a tender to CPS invalid in 2014. It suspended the order invalidating the contract until a new tender could be awarded or, if no contract was awarded, until the contract came to an end. The original (invalid) contract will lapse on March 31 and we remain uncertain how grants will be distributed come 1 April.

The minister, who again managed to evade every material question before Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) on Tuesday, has been arrogant at best and grossly incompetent at worst. She could provide no detail on what each grant would cost to administer but said the contract with CPS would be for two years.

Of course, the key here is to ‘connect the dots’, try to follow the money and ask some hard questions. Why is the minister so hell-bent on providing the tender to CPS? She has declared other companies ‘unresponsive’ to the bidding process.

At the heart of the ConCourt judgment setting aside the CPS tender was whether CPS could substantiate its claim that its BEE equity partners would manage and execute over 74% of the tender? Some have said that the BEE partners advised CPS that they were unable to carry out 74% of the work and sub-contracted most of that work back to CPS. Many might call this fronting.

The ConCourt found on the face of the information provided by CPS in its tender that it was not possible to determine whether its claimed empowerment credentials were up to scratch or not. The court went on to hold that “SASSA's failure to ensure that the claimed empowerment credentials were objectively confirmed was fatally defective.”

One cannot help but feel a deep sense of cynicism about the entire process. In the meantime, 17 million grants are under threat. Or if a solution is found, the contract will be renewed with CPS yet again - even as several questions remain about its empowerment credentials and also whether alternative options to CPS have been explored in a bona fide manner by the minister?

Why would Dlamini play fast and loose with the poor in such a way?

The simple answer is: because she can. This is a woman who has the full backing of the president. In fact, Zuma intervened, calling a meeting with Finance minister Gordhan and Dlamini on the weekend and Gordhan will appear before Scopa next week. Dlamini knows Zuma has her back no matter how outrageous her conduct. She walked out of a press conference on Sunday after refusing to answer difficult questions crying that the media was creating a crisis. So it was no surprise then that Zuma said people should stop asking questions about the grants issue and that the media was stoking a crisis. When in doubt, attack the media, a convenient ‘straw man’.

It is also worth remembering that Dlamini was one of the ministers who remained seated after Gordhan’s recent Budget speech. Gordhan and Mark Barnes of the Post Office have repeatedly said that the Postbank would be ready and willing to distribute social grants to recipients. That fell on deaf ears, perhaps predictably.

But Dlamini is merely a product of Zuma’s world: dangerously unaccountable and arrogant. The Constitution in s217 is clear that procurement should be ‘fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective’. Even a cursory glance at this dog’s breakfast created by Sassa’s intransigence indicates that the requirements of s217 have not been met. The ConCourt has now ordered Sassa and the Minister to answer a series of questions regarding their failure to act over the past three years. Clearly it is trying to draw a line in the sand on the impunity we are witnessing. The ConCourt is in the complex position now of trying to stem the careless disregard for the rule of law by those in power.

All around us those in power flout the rule of law. Dlamini is not alone.

Even as Parliament has called for Faith Muthambi to fall on her sword after the SABC debacle, it would be wise not to hold one’s breath waiting for Zuma to act and fire Muthambi.

Prasa’s Collins Letsoalo is similarly emboldened and simply refuses to vacate his position as acting CEO even after his dismissal. If Hlaudi Motsoeneng can hang in there, why can’t Letsoalo, after all?

In the same week as Dlamini and Zuma are attacking the media for spreading panic, State Security minister David Mahlobo came up with the ingenious idea of ‘regulating social media’ because of the phenomenon of ‘fake news’.

This is simply about creating more diversions when facing political pressure. Zuma knows that, as do those in his Cabinet and across government who have ‘gone rogue’. They simply have the license to plunder and justify the unjustifiable- and the start of that impunity can be traced to the very top - the president himself.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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