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With just two weeks to go before the 12-month delayed deadline for Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) to hand over the social grants contract, one thing is clear: even without the dreaded Bathabile Dlamini the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) is capable of keeping South Africans on the edge of their seats. Another thing that is clear is that CPS will be involved in the distribution of social grants for several months beyond end-March.

Sassa’s latest monthly report to the constitutional court reveals that neither it nor its new partner, the SA Post Office (Sapo), is ready to take over at the end of March. Sapo CEO Mark Barnes makes this clear in a letter to Sassa CEO Pearl Bengu, in which he refers to problems including delays in setting up backup systems.

It’s also clear that Shoprite and Pick n Pay stores across SA are in for a hair-raising time on April 1. They are facing a triple whammy that will require all the steady resolve, skills and ability to plan that Sassa lacks.

The least of these retailers’ worries will be that April 1 is Easter Sunday, and falls in a long weekend. More significant is that it is also the day that the 1% point increase in Vat takes effect.

This means that by March 31 all their pricing systems will have to be changed and prices increased on everything that is not zero-rated. As Pick n Pay CEO Richard Brasher said recently about the Easter Sunday Vat launch date: "Clearly no-one in government has ever worked in a shop."

On top of Easter and the Vat increase, retailers will be dealing with whatever chaos there may be if Sassa and Sapo do believe they’re capable of taking over a chunk of the social grant distribution.

Though Shoprite reckons it distributes around 50% of the grants paid by merchants each month, no executive in the group has ever been asked to provide Sassa with input on how best to plan for a post-CPS regime. Being logistics experts, they could have something useful to say.

At the very least there’s the peculiar obsession with grant distribution on the first of the month.

"The Shoprite group has been trying for years to convince government to adopt a staggered payout period of grants," says a Shoprite spokesman. "The staggered payout approach would reduce both the volume and value of security-related incidents associated with these payouts, create a more user-friendly payout process for recipients as the old and disabled currently have to endure very long queues, and reduce the number of security-related incidents affecting our employees."

Sadly for Shoprite and Pick n Pay there’s no indication Sassa is bothered with their frontline issues. We are midway through March and it’s evident that while the former social development minister has been shuffled into the position of minister of women in the presidency, her social grant legacy is set to live on. The plan was that by now CPS would have distributed its last grant and be packed up and heading out the door, having handed everything over to Sassa.

Last week the constitutional court judges, who have had their fill of the wayward Sassa team, listened in stunned silence as it became evident from Sassa’s counsel that there was zero chance of this happening. Nazeer Cassim, appearing for the agency, told the court that Sassa had no contingency plan for paying the estimated 2.8m recipients who receive their cash each month from CPS-managed paypoints across the country. Without an extension there would be chaos, said Nassim.

A visibly frustrated chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng suggested Sassa was laughing at the country’s highest court. Justice Sisi Khampepe said Sassa seemed to be blackmailing the court and leaving it no option but to grant the requested six-month extension. The court reserved judgment.

Just when it seemed things could not get worse, they did. Two days after informing the court there was no contingency plan, Sassa and Sapo held a joint media conference during which something that sounded, to the court, like a contingency plan was described. In what has been described as an unprecedented move, late on Friday the court ordered Sassa and Sapo to explain what was going on.

And so, in four short days, Sassa was able to demonstrate it didn’t need Dlamini to cause havoc with our collective nerves.

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