S.Africa judge slams 'incompetence' in welfare pay crisis
More than 17 million of the poorest South Africans could lose their welfare payments within weeks in a government dispute that the country's top judge said Wednesday displayed "absolute incompetence".
The system of distributing money to nearly one third of the population is close to collapse after the Social Security Agency (SASSA) failed in its vow to take on the delivery contract.
The Constitutional Court in Johannesburg on Wednesday heard an application asking for the court to intervene and ensure that the payments are made after March 31.
Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini has been under fierce attack for denying there was a looming crisis, which could damage support for the ruling ANC party among millions of poor voters.
"I genuinely want to understand how we get to this level... that can be characterised as absolute incompetence?" Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said at the hearing.
South Africa pays out around 140 billion rand ($10.7 billion) a year in grants to vulnerable people including pensioners, unemployed mothers and the disabled.
The payments have been outsourced to a private company Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), whose contract expires at the end of March.
But the contract was ruled unlawful in 2014 by the Constitutional Court, which unsuccessfully ordered a new one to be negotiated.
"The beneficiaries still do not know what will happen," Geoff Budlender, a lawyer representing the Black Sash action group that brought the application, told the court.
"There is simply no explanation at all for the minister's actions and for her inactions.
"The court is the last resort which the beneficiaries... have to ensure that they get their rights and they don’t go hungry."
Andrew Breitenbach, lawyer for SASSA and Dlamini, argued that the government had not been negligent but admitted his clients had failed to fulfil their pledge to take over the contract.
The African National Congress party, which led the struggle against apartheid, came to power in 1994 under Nelson Mandela but has lost support in recent years.
Led by President Jacob Zuma, the ANC recorded its worst ever election results in local polls last year while remaining the country's biggest party.
South Africa will hold a general election next year.