Constitutional Court Judge President Mogoeng Mogoeng. Picture: LEBOHANG MASHILOANE
Constitutional Court Judge President Mogoeng Mogoeng. Picture: LEBOHANG MASHILOANE

It took until last week for Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini to say sorry for the social grants crisis — and even then, she said it was because a "young friend" had prompted her to do so. Then we had President Jacob Zuma saying sorry, but even then it was only for the anxiety caused by the social grants crisis, not for the crisis itself, and it was after he giggled in Parliament as he denied that there was a crisis at all.

The lack of any sense of responsibility or accountability — or indeed of shame — has been a hallmark of the response to the crisis by the minister, her boss and those around them.

But Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and his colleagues on the Constitutional Court bench on Friday delivered a clear and stern lesson about accountability. They also came up with a timely, assertive and sensible response to what in their words would be a "catastrophe", if grants were not paid to all 11-million beneficiaries on April 1.

Yet, welcome as Friday’s judgment may be, it should not have come to this. The Constitutional Court has, in effect, had to take over the executive oversight role for what is arguably the most critical of the services that government delivers. The minister, and ultimately the president to whom she reports, should have been exercising that oversight role.

That they so signally failed to exercise that oversight, or even to recognise the problem, is one of the many shocking aspects of the drama. And the chief justice and his court minced no words in making that clear, at least in relation to Dlamini. They have given her two weeks to show why she should not be personally liable for the costs of the case, which are estimated at upwards of R5m. If her pathetic performances in Parliament and in the public eye are anything to go by, Dlamini, who is also president of the ANC Women’s League and spends much of her time engaged in the party’s succession battle, will struggle to make a compelling case.

We can’t help hoping that the court will make the minister pay and so send a signal to everyone in the Cabinet that their responsibility is to serve the people of SA, not the party nor even the president.

Of more immediate importance to the millions of poor households that depend on grants, is that the court has, thankfully, made sure that grants will be paid as usual for the next 12 months and that this time, the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) and the Department of Social Development will have to do a proper job of contracting a new service provider, or providers, to take over from there.

The trouble is that the judiciary should not have to be doing this nor should civil society organisations have to be taking such cases to court in an effort to ensure that government simply does its duty

The court firmly rejected demands by the existing service provider, Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), for a new contract at a better price and simply suspended its 2014 ruling that Sassa’s contract with CPS was invalid for a further 12 months. Any price increase will have to be approved by the Treasury and the court. Where, in the past, CPS has made profit out of selling airtime and financial services to grant recipients, the court has ruled that the exploitative practices will have to stop. And it has ruled that the existing contract, and the process of finding a replacement for CPS’ service, will be subject to intrusive and frequent probing by the auditor-general and an independent panel of lawyers and technical experts.

It is a creative solution to an urgent and critical problem. The Black Sash and Freedom Under Law, who brought the case, are to be commended.

The trouble is that the judiciary should not have to be doing this nor should civil society organisations have to be taking such cases to court in an effort to ensure that government simply does its duty. It’s part of a growing trend in recent
years in which the judiciary is having to take over because
the executive is derelict in its duty. A near catastrophe has been averted.

Please login or register to comment.