Just when you think hapless social development minister Bathabile Dlamini could not embarrass herself any further, she wades into another scandal that would be enough to sink the career of any but the most shameless of politicians. Dlamini’s presence in a critical government portfolio remains a powerful emblem of the Jacob Zuma era, in which cronyism and blind loyalty have outweighed performance or competence.

As head of the ANC Women’s League, her support has been vital for a besieged Zuma. Presumably this is why he didn’t fire her, even after she botched the social grants process so badly last year that it looked entirely conceivable that the 17m South Africans who rely on grants to eat might not get their monthly payments.

Now, this week, we learnt that on the eve of the ANC’s national elective conference in December, Dlamini’s department paid the SA Broadcasting Corp (SABC) R500,000 to carry a "puff-piece" interview with her on Real Talk with Anele the minister’s considerable virtues.

Unethically, the SABC did not reveal it was a paid-for fluff until it was caught out. As Wits journalism Prof Anton Harber put it, it was a "contravention of every principle of journalism, every code of conduct, every professional rule". (The SABC has since admitted its editorial code was breached.)

But insiders in government say the story is even more scandalous than it first appears.

The Financial Mail has learnt that Dlamini’s department got the go-ahead to spend the nearly R500,000 for a public-relations exercise focused on social welfare, the 16 days of activism against violence campaign and rights for the disabled. Instead, when the programme was flighted in the middle of the ANC elective conference, it was all about praising Dlamini. (Making it last two hours must have been no small feat.)

Quite how this happened isn’t clear, considering government’s codes of conduct say leaders aren’t allowed to spend taxpayer money on boosting their own personal profiles.

How the snow-job cost R500,000 is equally mystifying. Even by Dlamini’s Olympic-standard high bar for splurging public funds, this was a staggering middle-finger to the taxpayer.

But it was made worse by the way in which her department handled the fallout.

First came the lies: the department initially denied the reports as "completely untrue" and a "display of gutter journalism". Almost immediately, there was a U-turn. Dlamini’s spokesperson, Lumka Oliphant, told Radio 702 that R149,000 was indeed paid to the SABC to profile Dlamini, in part, to counter the negative views of her because, for example, "people say she drinks".

An unapologetic Dlamini then blundered into an inquiry into her role in the social grants crisis, ordered by the constitutional court, where she spent two days dodging questions. It was so bad that few disagreed with the Black Sash’s advocate, Geoff Budlender, who said she’d been "unresponsive and evasive".

It’s hard to do proper justice to the stunning train-wreck that is Dlamini. On the grants crisis she has acted with all the urgency of molasses. She has managed to make the average Telkom call-centre agent seem like a model of enterprise and dedication. She must surely be in the twilight hours of her tenure in government.

Already, the Cyril Ramaphosa era has kicked off promisingly. The National Prosecuting Authority has been hauled into line, the clowns on the Eskom board have been dispatched and the thuggish Richard Mdluli has been pensioned off.

But if SA is to return to an era of public competence, Dlamini’s long-overdue departure should be priority number one in Luthuli House.