5 months to go and SA no closer to Sassa grants solution

Cape Town – A joint meeting of the standing committee on public accounts and the portfolio committee on social development heard on Tuesday that Treasury has been brought in to review the collapsing deal between the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) and the South African Post Office (SAPO).

The two government entities were given until Wednesday evening to come back to Parliament and show evidence that a "common sense" deal could be reached for SAPO to assist with the social grants scheme.

What MPs heard though, was that all role players need yet another week before any sort of inter-government agreement can be reached.

The two parties seemingly could not find common ground following four meetings between Tuesday morning and Wednesday evening.

Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajane, who has been mediating between the two organisations over the last 24 hours, told the committee that there had been a request that a fourth team be set up to review the deal.

READ: Treasury to review Sassa, Post Office deal points

This team will comprise officials from Treasury, the South African Reserve Bank, as well as Sassa and SAPO's technical teams. It would need until Tuesday or Wednesday next week to review the deal in its entirety and provide suggestions.

Only then will Parliament hear if a deal can be struck, seven months after the Constitutional Court told Sassa to find a new service provider.

Complicating matters, Sassa could still put a contract out on open tender to the private sector on Friday, resulting in two parallel processes running concurrently.

Technical teams 'have never met'

Astonishingly, Mogajane revealed that Sassa and SAPO's technical expertise teams had never met, despite 14 high-level meetings between the two entities since July.

"It was quite worrying that we noted very late that the two technical teams have never met," Mogajane, who apparently learnt of this information in the last two days, said.

He said banking experts and grant distribution experts needed to "talk one language".

READ: Ramaphosa says not his job to keep Dlamini accountable

DA, IFP and EFF MPs raised concerns that the technical teams had not met, saying the 14 meetings that had been held were fruitless and wasteful expenditure.

IFP MP Liezl van der Merwe said there were 100 working days left before the March 31, 2018, deadline set by the Constitutional Court for a new service provider, and matters "have not moved one bit".

Auditor-General Kimi Makwethu suggested it could help committees to ask for a walk-through "from those people who know the universe", alluding to Cash Paymaster Services, which currently distributes grants for Sassa.

"Someone needs to walk them through as if it is April 1. From tomorrow, there are 99 working days left, and building the machinery is a process."

Dlamini could be seen shaking her head as Makwethu closed.

Executive has 'not done enough'

MPs from both sides also repeatedly said it made sense for the government to keep business "in the family", as it would essentially retain all expenditure and save the state money.

ANC MP Vincent Smith said that going on open tender so late in the process would virtually ensure that the Constitutional Court's deadline would not be met.

Most interestingly, ANC MPs Nyami Booi and Ezekiel Kekana said that the inter-ministerial committee charged with providing executive oversight, and chaired by President Jacob Zuma, had so far not given enough guidance.

While Smith and DA MP David Ross expressed renewed hope that a compromise agreement could be reached, IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa was sceptical.

"This is a strategic and purposeful delay. We have been down this road before. Come next week Wednesday, Treasury may well tell us we don't have a deal," Hlengwa said.

READ: 'Black Monday' vs 'Black Label' - Dlamini and MPs exchange barbs

"At some point, someone has to walk the plank for a well-coordinated plan to collapse social grants."

Sassa CEO Pearl Bhengu said the agency was aware time was not on its side, and it did not want to make beneficiaries panic.

Dlamini suggested that the Post Office be given be a trial run to see if it can deliver grants to 100 000 people in rural areas.

Treasury has four working days to come up with a solution, assuming that Sassa chooses to heed the committees' advice and delay putting the contract on open tender.

The inter-ministerial committee will meet on Tuesday to bring its own executive oversight to the table, with all eyes now on how it will exercise its political will regarding the grants scheme.

The joint meeting will then meet again next Wednesday, to do it all over again.

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