Sassa boss speaks

2017-03-12 06:01
Sassa CEO Thokozani Magwaza

Sassa CEO Thokozani Magwaza

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On several occasions, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini blocked desperate efforts by the chief executive officer (CEO) of the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) to report back to the Constitutional Court about the payment of social grants and directly interfered with attempts to find a solution to the crisis.

This is according to Sassa CEO Thokozani Magwaza, who this week broke his silence on the grants crisis.

He listed a number of occasions – dating as far back as early February – when his office was ready to petition the highest court in the land for guidance, only to be abruptly halted by last-minute instructions from Dlamini.

He was speaking just days before tomorrow’s deadline for Sassa to explain to the Constitutional Court why it had handled the social grants in the manner it did and why it had failed to communicate with the court.

With the five-year contract awarded to Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) to disburse welfare grants to more than 17 million South Africans expiring on March 31, citizens remain in the dark about how the grants will be distributed from April, and the costs involved in doing so.

Magwaza, who has been on sick leave for more than a week amid speculation that he may be suspended, told City Press that:

- Dlamini got in the way of papers being filed in the Constitutional Court three times;

- The research report, submitted in October, which detailed Sassa’s inability to take over grant payments from CPS in April, was initially withheld from him when he took office in November;

- Dlamini’s aides told Sassa staff to take instructions from her attorney;

- Dlamini torpedoed plans to involve the SA Post Office in the distribution of grants; and

- He was being victimised for recommending a 12-month temporary contract be secured with CPS, instead of the 24 to 36 months preferred by others.

The apex court will guide

Magwaza spoke as the Constitutional Court gave strong hints in the directives it issued to Sassa on Wednesday that those responsible for the mess would, in the absence of credible explanations, be held in contempt of court.

Sources close to Dlamini told City Press that questions posed by the court this week – including whether Sassa and the minister had “any objection to independent monitoring of any agreement” – would be answered in a way that demonstrated “commitment to transparency”.

Tim Sukazi, Dlamini’s attorney, was working around the clock this week to draft a contract that would be acceptable to all parties, including the Treasury.

He said the information requested by the court would be answered candidly “to clear up a lot of things”.

As part of Wednesday’s directive, the court has asked when it was determined that Sassa would not be able to take over the grant payments from CPS, and why it was not “immediately” informed of this fact.

Sukazi said the central aim in finalising the new deal with CPS would be to “minimise the illegality” in the contract. This meant limiting the “time and scope” of the work that CPS would be expected to do.

The deal would also involve CPS over a shorter time and remove some of the responsibilities it had previously executed, particularly those that Sassa could carry out.

This was meant to ensure that if a deviation from the procurement laws was considered, the fees involved would be kept to a minimum.

Following presentations to Cabinet this week from the social development department and Treasury, it appears that consensus has been reached that the apex court will provide guidance.

Speaking in Parliament on Thursday, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said he was confident the court would “deal with the social grants matter with the level of urgency it requires”.

On Friday, President Jacob Zuma said the grants would be paid, failing which, “let us see what happens to those who were supposed to make them happen”.

Drama at Sassa

High drama continued this week at Sassa’s offices, City Press heard, with some staff members complaining that they were under pressure to take decisions they did not agree with and others refusing to take instructions from external people brought in by Dlamini’s aides.

By Thursday, the agency was on the verge of getting a new acting CEO as Thamo Mzobe was said to be sick.

Insiders said the name of Dlamini’s adviser, Wiseman Magasela, was among those considered to take over temporarily until Magwaza returned on Monday.

Mzobe had been appointed a week ago, after incumbent CEO Magwaza was booked off ill.

In what is set to be another high-stakes week in the unfolding saga, on Wednesday the Constitutional Court will hear an application, brought by human rights group Black Sash, demanding legal oversight of any agreement with CPS.

Black Sash also wants the court to receive regular progress reports regarding the search for a new service provider to pay out the grants.

On Monday, public interest group Freedom Under Law asked to join the court action.

It also demanded that the court cap earnings by CPS, thereby ensuring that the interim contract would be brokered in such a way that CPS would not profit from the current crisis.

Magwaza said on his first day of leave he had been warned that he had to report to the Constitutional Court because “as the CEO [he] is responsible for what is taking place at Sassa”.

Insiders said the October report was sent to Sassa four days before Magwaza took office. However, he only heard about the report later and then, “in dribs and drabs”.

Hold your horses

Magwaza said the affidavit he filed in court on February 28 regarding Sassa’s inability to take over grant payments from CPS had been on February 6, but he had been compelled to withhold it because Dlamini had said she was not privy to its contents.

He told City Press: “I thought that as a CEO I am the one who is liable to write an affidavit to court.”

The process was then halted.

Hold your horses again

On February 14, he met with Dlamini in Cape Town, where they discussed the affidavit until after midnight and “agreed then that I was going to file”.

But on his way home, Dlamini’s chief of staff phoned to say the minister wanted another meeting that day.

That meeting, which took place at OR Tambo International Airport – after Magwaza had flown in from Cape Town – was also attended by top social development officials and Sassa management, as well as staff who had worked on the October report.

With Dlamini’s special adviser, Sipho Shezi, chairing the meeting, the affidavit that had been drawn up in the previous night’s meeting with Dlamini was changed.

“I kept quiet during the meeting because I was perturbed with what was taking place,” Magwaza said.

He then urged that the document which had been agreed upon be filed immediately in court “because time is running out for us”.

After the meeting he went to the airport police station and signed the affidavit.

Later that night, he received a note from Sassa’s legal services, “saying that we have been instructed not to file the document” and that the instruction had come from Dlamini.

“So, the papers were not filed. I was not happy, but I kept quiet because the minister had taken over,” said Magwaza.

Once more, hold your horses

With the March 31 deadline looming, marking the end of the contract with CPS, Magwaza said he signed an affidavit to file documents with the court at Linden Police Station in Johannesburg on February 27.

The following day, the documents were filed before court.

However, later that day Dlamini instructed that they be withdrawn.

Magwaza said Sassa legal services manager Busisiwe Mahlobogoana was first to receive an email from Sukazi, ordering her to withdraw the affidavit on the instructions of Dlamini.

Mahlobogoana replied she could only take such instructions from her Sassa CEO.

This interaction was followed by an email with an attachment from Zodwa Mvulane, the payment transition project manager.

The email stated that Sukazi had been appointed as the attorney in charge and Mahlobogoana should do as he instructed.

She complied after being instructed do so by the then acting CEO, Mzobe.

Magwaza said he later heard that the court refused to withdraw the affidavit, insisting that sound reason must be given for this to happen.

However, Sukazi denied that Dlamini played any role in delaying submitting papers to the court.

“It seems the delay was caused more by a difference of opinion as to the legal approach. Such differences led to the filing of the now aborted application at court.”

No to illegal decisions

Magwaza said that after discussions with Treasury and the SA Reserve Bank, it had been agreed that Sassa should approach the court to validate any action to be taken.

CPS would be a viable solution, but only for a short period. An alternative option, albeit later, would involve banks and the SA Post Office.

Magwaza had previously written to the Post Office requesting a meeting to avert the looming crisis, but was told he had upset Dlamini.

“I asked why, given that the Post Office is a state-owned entity,” he said.

Magwaza said he believed 12 months was more than enough time to fix the problem, hence his advocating for a short-term contract with CPS.

“I am the CEO and I have done these things before ... For people to come from outside to tell me that it cannot be done, that is out.

“All the threats of suspension are because they say I am not toeing the line.

“I tried [to file court papers] on February 6, but I could not, then I tried on the 14th and I was stopped. I tried on the 15th and I was stopped again. Then I was forced to file this thing on the 27th. Now I have been accused of doing so without permission.”

Magwaza added that he did not think he would be suspended on his return to work – which happens tomorrow – as “that would be suicide on their part”.

He said staff had defied instructions not to talk to him while he was on leave, but had called him for advice.

"He had told them that in following instructions, “I implore you not to take illegal decisions”.

Magwaza questioned the delay in moving him to his new position at Sassa. “I was appointed in June, but I only took office in November.

This is another question that needs to be interrogated.

“Why I was not allowed to come in between June and November?” he asked.

Read more on:    sassa  |  constitutional court  |  thokozani magwaza  |  bathabile dlamini  |  social grants

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