The controversy over social security has hogged news headlines, dinner-table talk and just about every other dialogue in the country this month. But it was IFP MP Liezl van der Merwe who pushed concerns over the SA Social Security Agency’s (Sassa’s) payments for more than a year.
From questions to the president in March 2016 to regular queries to officials in briefings of the social development committee in Parliament a year earlier, Van der Merwe never got a straight answer – instead she was castigated by fellows MPs from the ANC, laughed at by the president and generally told she was making a mountain out of a molehill.
“I always told my caucus ‘I will stick with this issue because I feel it’s going to become a national crisis and a national scandal’,” she said this week. “And I have been vindicated,” she added.
As part of its ruling on Friday, the Constitutional Court banned Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) from distributing the private data of grants beneficiaries to its subsidiary companies.
The shared data have led to illegal deductions of electricity, cellphone airtime and funeral insurances by these subsidiary companies.
Van der Merwe first raised questions about the matter to President Jacob Zuma in March last year when she asked the president whether he would consider establishing a commission of inquiry into illegal deductions from the accounts of Sassa grant beneficiaries, considering that reports of such deductions were on the increase and that the ministerial task team had been unable to resolve ongoing concerns.
Zuma admitted the illegal deductions were on the rise but said the task team on deductions was sufficient. He said more than 13 000 cases of deductions had been reported to the task team and that it had assisted in the resolution of 10 500 of those cases and was busy addressing about 2 000 cases that were outstanding.
Zuma went on to say the development and implementation of the recourse mechanism was in the pipeline. This week, almost a year to the day he gave the above response, Zuma told Parliament he was not aware of any illegal deductions and dared opposition MPs to present him with evidence of such deductions.
Van der Merwe started asking questions back in 2015 but each time, she says, she hit a brick wall. “While the minister [Bathabile Dlamini] acknowledged knowing about the problem, she would ask me to bring her specific cases. She dismissed me, saying Sassa was looking into it each time I asked her about it. It seemed like I was hitting a brick wall,” added Van der Merwe and hence the decision to escalate the matter to Zuma, asking him to establish a commission of inquiry.
“I was getting calls from normal members of society, some people were even coming to my office in Parliament with affidavits saying ‘there is a crisis, our grants are disappearing, there are deductions coming off and we never signed anything’.”
During the course of last year, Van der Merwe – alongside other opposition MPs – started raising questions about the CPS contract but, time and again, answers were not forthcoming and Parliament’s presiding officers enabled the executive to escape scrutiny.
Van der Merwe said she agreed with the Constitutional Court judges that Parliament’s portfolio committee on social development failed in its duties to hold Sassa and the social development department to account.
“It was difficult to raise these questions in the committee; ANC MPs insult you as a person while protecting the minister from scrutiny. I was bullied throughout,” she added.
Van der Merwe said she would be writing to the National Assembly’s chairperson of committees, Cedric Frolick, to complain about Zoleka Capa, the chairperson of the social development committee, over her behaviour as the chairperson of the committee.
“I think she must shoulder some blame. She confuses her role as chairperson of a parliamentary committee with her role as an ANC national executive committee member,” claimed Van der Merwe.