Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini insisted on Sunday that social grants would continue to be paid in April but failed to explain how this would happen, in what has become a massive government crisis.
"No-one will go unpaid," said Dlamini.
In a confrontational media briefing, broadcast on live TV on eNCA, the minister refused to answer detailed questions about the crisis, how the grants would be paid, what's happening with a new contract with the existing service provider Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), why the department had failed to meet the deadline set by the Constitutional Court, or why the department's director general Zane Dangor had quit.
This is what's at stake: 17 143 635 grants which are paid to 11 487 417 beneficiaries. And only 1 616 870 of them have bank accounts which could offer an alternative way of getting the grants.
Those numbers are from the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) papers which were filed in the Constitutional Court last week. Sassa is the state agency which runs the social grants for the department. The national Budget says the state spent R139.5-billion on grants in 2016/17 and expects to spend R151.6-billion in the current financial year.
"We will continue paying social grants beyond March 31. And on the 1st of April, we will be paying grants, when the current contract with the current service provider comes to an end," said Dlamini.
She refused to explain exactly how those grants will be paid, but it seems clear that the department is negotiating a deal with CPS, the current contractor, which may well be illegal. In 2014, the Concourt found that the CPS contract was invalid due to problems during the tender process and ordered the department to run another tender process (the department subsequently ran a failed process that didn't result in a new contractor) and ordered that the CPS contract would end on March 31, 2017.
A week ago, Sassa filed papers at the Concourt, asking the court to allow it to hire CPS for another year; the papers were subsequently withdrawn in an indication of conflict within the department and Sassa.
Dlamini and her officials said that nothing had been signed with CPS. "We have not signed off and therefore there is no deal," said one of Dlamini's officials at the briefing but neither she nor Dlamini would explain further.
Dlamini wants CPS's biometric identification system which the department has boasted about globally. "We've been to a number of countries explaining our system, so we can't just drop it," she said. "I will not back down on this requirement. It has saved the fiscus R2-billion and has provided Sassa with an accurate and a secure transition environment."
Dlamini alluded to a plan in which Sassa will run payments itself April 2019.
Dlamini refused to discuss the reported resignation on Friday of her department's director-general or a report in the Sunday Times that Dangor had resigned due to a breakdown in his relationship with the minister over the grants problem. "I'm not going to come here and discuss his issues; we're going to discuss them internally," she said.
The Sunday Times, the City Press and the Sunday Independent all front-paged the crisis, referring to the weekend meeting between Dlamini, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and President Jacob Zuma. The Presidency confirmed the meeting. "The President is of the view that the matters are solvable. He has directed the two ministers to mandate their technical teams to work on the outstanding issues in order to ensure that social grant beneficiaries receive their grants on the 1st of April," said the Presidency in a statement.
The Sunday Independent reported that at the meeting with Zuma, Dlamini presented a plan to pay CPS R17.64 per beneficiary per month, an increase of R1.10 on the current contract, which would pay CPS about R3.6 billion a year.
The minister struggled through Sunday's media briefing, stumbling through her written notes and facing an increasingly hostile media when she refused to answer their questions.
eNCA asked Dlamini why she should keep her job considering the enormity of the crisis and her department's failure to meet the Concourt deadlines. "I did not join the ANC to be a minister. In the ANC you are appointed by the president. And if you are not performing well, he asks you to recuse yourself so that those that are still fit or will perform better under the circumstances would be given an opportunity to serve."
Dlamini tried to deflect criticism by implying that the grants crisis was being manipulated by unnamed parties. "People who went out to complain about the crisis knew what they were doing and it's not the first time we have this problem," she said but didn't explain further.
She complained briefly about critics focusing on the social grants agreement "and not on the bigger picture of empowering our communities, of ensuring that we create a state of the art system".
Dlamini listed the options which a departmental task team came up with at the end of last year: to continue using CPS; to use Grindrod, the bank which already services the majority of the beneficiaries; to hire all banks able to meet the requirements to deliver the service; to use banks for those beneficiaries who have banking access plus a cash delivery service for those who don't; or to use the state-owned Post Office.
And for those who saw the photo circulating on social media after the Budget, of Dlamini and some fellow ministers sitting down during the standing ovation by MPs for Gordhan, apparently insulting him; there have been repeated rumours of conflict between Dlamini and Gordhan over the social grants fiasco.
But Dlamini said she did indeed clap for him. "I stood up, clapped, and sat down. And therefore whoever took that photo wanted to show the bad and, unfortunately, South Africans discuss non issues ... That was a very sad situation."