South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) acting CEO Pearl Bengu has apologised to the Constitutional Court and South Africans in an attempt to avoid paying legal costs out of her own pocket for the social grants fiasco that nearly placed the livelihoods of more than ten-million beneficiaries in jeopardy.
In an affidavit submitted to the court on Monday, Bengu said she has acted “reasonably” since her appointment to the top job in July 2017, without compromising or causing harm to Sassa.
And personally footing the legal bill, which observers said runs into millions, would disadvantage her family, Bengu argued.
“Any adverse finding against me and invariably a liability for cost will have a negative impact not only on me but also my family and extended family members, whom I am obliged to provide financial assistance from time to time.”
Bengu’s affidavit is in compliance with the court’s order in March that she – along with former social development minister Bathabile Dlamini – must submit affidavits indicating why they should not be held personally liable to pay costs.
The order included a further six-month extension to Sassa’s contract with Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) for the administration of cash payments to 2.5 million elderly and disabled social grant beneficiaries.
Bengu and Dlamini have been largely blamed for engineering the social grants crisis by delaying the process to contract the South African Post Office and commercial banks to replace the services of CPS, whose contract was meant to be entirely phased out by March 31 2018.
Bengu and Dlamini join former president Jacob Zuma in the ranks of high-profile state officials that are facing prospects of personally paying legal costs for scandals associated with their official duties. Up until recently, it had been unprecedented for courts to make personal cost orders against state officials, as taxpayers would normally have to pay legal fees.
Bengu said in all legal proceedings, Sassa was a litigating party, thus there is no basis that she be joined in her personal capacity unless the court finds her grossly negligent in the management of Sassa.
“I have been advised, that penalising individual functionaries, while it might be appropriate in a particular case, where there is recklessness or gross negligence, will not address the profound structural problems within an ill-equipped system which the functionary strives to improve.”
As acting CEO of Sassa, Bengu said she hasn’t acted in bad faith nor has she disrespected her duties. In fact, when Sassa realised that it couldn’t find a service provider that would be capable of administering cash payments for beneficiaries in far-flung rural areas, Bengu said she took the initiative to ask the court to extend CPS’s contract for another six months.
“It is submitted that everything I have done can only be attributed to the discharge of my responsibilities associated to the office I occupy.”
Although Dlamini has moved to the women’s ministry under President Cyril Ramphosa’s cabinet changes in February, she still has to account for her role in the Sassa debacle. Dlamini also faces a Constitutional Court-mandated inquiry to determine whether she should be held personally liable for the social grants crisis and legal costs. The inquiry, headed by Judge Bernard Ngoepe, is yet to make a finding.
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