Melanie Verwoerd

Why Bathabile Dlamini should pay

2017-03-22 08:32
Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini.

Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini.

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There is nothing that focusses the attention of a politician faster than the threat of having to personally pay a (gigantic) legal bill. Just ask Bathabile Dlamini. 

On Friday, after the Constitution Court’s judgment, she finally issued some form of an apology to the grant recipients. Through her spokeswoman Lumka Oliphant (who regained her excellent command of English) she “apologised unreservedly for all the anxiety and fear that they (the grant recipients) went through in the past few weeks”. (Note to the minister: It would have had a lot more impact if you had done it yourself and not used your spokesperson). 

Not that she took any responsibility for the anxiety and fear. Nope, she was still blaming others. For weeks, she has denied any responsibility in the whole drama.  She blamed officials in Sassa, Treasury, the media, Pravin Gordhan etcetera, etcetera. 

According to reports in the media over the weekend the blame game hasn’t stopped, except that now she is also playing the woman’s card. City Press reported that “the Minister complained that she was being treated unfairly ‘because there is this one woman that has to be brought down’”. 

As a feminist I am fully aware of the inequalities and uphill battle women still face in both the private and public domain. But, as a feminist I object to a powerful woman playing the victim and hiding behind the legitimate suffering of other women in order to divert attention from her own failures.

According to the same report the Minister “was ‘shocked’ that the court asked her to submit reasons why she should not be held liable for the costs of the court application”. I believe that the courts should do this far more frequently. 

According to a report in the Financial Mail recently, the national government alone paid a whopping R873 million in the 2015/2016 financial year in legal costs. Compare this to R334m in 2009/2010 financial year. One can only shudder if you think what the amount will rise to when provincial and other legal costs are included. 

Of course some legal actions are unavoidable, but many should never see the day of light – this case being a good example. If the grants issue was handled properly by the minister, Black Sash and Freedom under the Law would not have needed to take this to court. 

Just think about all the money that was also wasted for example in the Hlaudi Motsoeneng cases, Nkandla, and Berning Ntlemeza’s appointment. 

Not only does our government defend the often clearly indefensible, but then having lost, they insist on taking the cases on appeal round after round and continue to lose.  Either they are ignoring their legal counsel or else one has to seriously question the soundness of their legal advice.  

I believe that as soon as the principle is established by the courts that ministers or state officials or heads of government institutions (such as Hlaudi Motsoeneng) will have to pay for certain legal costs personally, a lot of the unnecessary litigation will stop and more importantly these public servants will be far more diligent in performing their duties. 

But of course they are taking their lead from No. 1. 

President Zuma was back in the National Assembly on Thursday to answer questions. Possibly because of the absence of the EFF (they are boycotting the Presidential Question Time), the president was in flying form. He was smiling, more insulting than ever to the opposition and his trademark laugh was heard frequently. 

He even gave little dances with jazz hands as he was mocking the opposition. The ANC lapped it up. They laughed, cheered and jeered at the opposition. Until the questions about Sassa came up. 

The president did not miss a beat. He laughed and mocked. “Why should I fire a minister when she has not done anything wrong yet?” he asked. “I thought we live a democratic country where the rule of law applies?” (Yes, I am fully aware of the irony of those words coming from him.) “Why should I discipline her? I thought you (Mmusi Maimane) are a democrat? This is a funny democracy you want. Hee hee heeeee!”

At this point the ANC fell silent. Heads dropped and most members started to look for their phones or Ipads.  Some Cabinet members shuffled around uncomfortably. Not that the president noticed. 

He smiled a contented smile before mocking amongst others Bantu Holomisa for claiming that illegal deductions are still taking place. “How can you say that it is taking place even now, when you are here in the House? You are here how do you know it is happening right now? Hee, hee, heee.” 

Ja, funny! If only it didn’t affect millions of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. 

Of course the president is right, that the minister has strictly speaking not committed a crime or at least been convicted of committing one, yet. But of course that is not the only reason to fire a minister. In fact, that rarely seems enough of a reason to fire a minister and even highly efficient ministers are given a “Nene”, because the president can hire and fire as he wishes. 

The fact remains that Bathabile Dlamini did not perform her duties as a minister. As also forcefully questioned by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, how could she possibly have let the most important function of her department and one of the most important of the government escalate to such a crisis? 

She clearly has no proper oversight over her department if she, according to her own legal papers, only found out in October that there was a problem. And let’s not forget that journalists like Marianne Thamm had been writing and members of the opposition had raised questions about the crisis long before October).  

She also seems to have no control over her officials. In reports over the weekend she claims that she had to “put away [her] dignity” and ran to call Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe and State Security Minister David Mahlobo from an ANC national working committee to settle a dispute between her officials on who should sign the court papers that had to go to the Constitutional Court.  

Surely any minister should have enough authority to instruct her officials to sign documents and not need outside help from other ministers? 

But even if the president does not really care about the efficient running of the country – surely he, who claims to be ANC president first and then president of the country, should realise that Minister Dlamini’s brinkmanship has seriously damaged the ANC’s image?

Failure to pay those grants on 1 April would have brought the country and the government to its knees. We were staring into that abyss until the Constitutional Court and civil society intervened. Surely that is enough reason to fire any minister – even in a funny democracy?

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    bathabile dlamini  |  sassa crisis
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