The Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) wants former South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) CEO Pearl Bhengu to appear before it to explain how almost R16m was irregularly spent on three events in KwaZulu-Natal.
Sassa appeared before Scopa on Tuesday to account for irregular expenditure amounting to R1.3bn during the 2016/17 financial year.
During questioning, DA MP Tim Brauteseth – a forensic investigator by trade – led the charge and wanted to know where former CEO Bhengu was, and how she signed off on the budget for the three “educational events” in the space of one day.
Bhengu is still in the employ of Sassa as KwaZulu-Natal regional head, having been moved there last month at her own request.
New Sassa CEO Abraham Mahlangu said Bhengu was “unwell”, and therefore could not be present to answer questions.
“The most important person is not here. It‘s a dereliction of duty. I hope you will receive a doctor‘s certificate,” Brauteseth replied.
The committee heard how five events were planned in KwaZulu-Natal in December. Only three were eventually held.
The authorisation of the events was “irregular”, Sassa confirmed, as the requests were approved the very next day, which was unusual.
Marquees, mobile toilets, catering, transport and sound systems were all approved for sums between R480 000 and R499 000 each for the three events.
“Interestingly, all the items are below the R500 000 threshold, so all the agency needs is three quotes [to sign off],” Brauteseth remarked.
“But no one in this room can tell us if those three quotes were obtained.”
Mahlangu said that it was in the committee‘s interests to ask the person who had signed off on the events for correct information, that being Bhengu.
“All of you are here to answer for the actions of one person, who is not here,” an exasperated Brauteseth replied.
R71m on flood relief
Another incident which took place under Bhengu‘s watch, was the spending of R71m on flood relief in Durban in October.
Sassa had overspent on the benchmarked items by almost double and triple the department-approved amounts, Brauteseth charged.
Blankets, mattresses and baby packs were benchmarked at R150, R300 and R380 per item, Mahlangu confirmed.
However, the invoice showed Sassa spent R300 and R460 per blanket and mattress respectively.
“Same with the baby packs, the vanity packs, etc, etc, etc. There is wholesale fraud going on there,” Brauteseth claimed.
Mahlangu told MPs that he had received an internal audit report on the matter from Sassa‘s 25-person audit committee.
“I have seen that report, it is on my desk and it will have to be processed… The doubling or tripling of the price is definitely not acceptable, that is why we will be taking actions based on the recommendations.”
He confirmed that, as CEO, he could not “just double the price without market information”.
“I have indicated that I am going to take action,” he repeated.
“We will obviously hold you to that,” Brauteseth concluded.
Sassa‘s chief financial officer Tsakeriwa Chauke also confirmed that during Bhengu‘s tenure as CEO, she also hired private security using Sassa funds following alleged threats to her safety.
Chauke indicated that Sassa would make the threat assessment available to the committee in both instances, and the amount spent.
New Social Development Minister Susan Shabangu assured the committee that the department would get to the bottom of Bhengu‘s alleged misdeeds.
“Matters of the previous acting CEO, we are addressing that and we will be activating our own investigation, including all areas such as security,” Shabangu told the committee.
“We also have other individuals which we will have to look at.”
Scopa would consider summonsing Bhengu to its next meeting with Sassa.