The buck stops with Zuma

The country breathed once more on Friday morning, when Constitutional Court Justice Johan Froneman handed down judgment in the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) matter, brought before the court by Black Sash.

The much-anticipated and apposite ruling on the grant payment crisis precisely apportioned blame where it is due – Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini and Sassa itself – and set out a detailed, court-supervised programme of action for the next 12 months, to ensure that the miscreants honour their constitutional obligation to ensure that social grants are paid, and that an alternative service provider is found in that time frame.

Of considerable import, and judicially uncommon, is the court’s decision to join Ms Dlamini to this matter in her personal capacity, and to hold her accountable for Sassa’s considerable legal costs in the matter before the court.

In his preamble to the ruling, Justice Froneman noted that the court had approached the matter with due caution, cognisant of the separation of powers doctrine, but that when a separate arm of government manifests a catastrophic failure of governance and does not honour its constitutional obligations, the court is constitutionally bound to step in and bring relief to those whose rights were infringed.

The provisions of the ruling – unusually detailed and equally unusually far-reaching – make it clear that the court has no faith in the minister, her department, or SASSA, and feels it is necessary to be sufficiently prescriptive and also to involve the Treasury, to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society are not tipped into penury come April 1.

While the court did not find either the minister or Sassa to be in contempt for not acting on the court’s 2014 ruling setting aside Sassa’s contract with Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), it did note that the complainants are at liberty to approach another court – presumably a high court – to determine whether or not the minister failed in her constitutional duty.

This is unsurprising, since that is tangential to the matter brought before the court: a plea by Black Sash to ensure that social grants are paid on Saturday April 1 and beyond, and that grant beneficiaries are protected from predatory marketing practices by companies associated with CPS.

Beyond the vote of no confidence by the court in Ms Dlamini, her department and Sassa, the ruling is an implicit rebuke aimed at the executive, in particular, Jacob Zuma, for it is he who delegated to Ms Dlamini the authority and the responsibility to ensure that social grants are paid on time, every time.

The classic management model of delegation, popularised by Louis A Allen in the 1920s, spells out the import of the chain of command.

A leader delegates to a subordinate the responsibility, and the requisite authority, to successfully do the job.

Delegation of authority flows downward, from superior to subordinate, while responsibility flows upwards, from subordinate to superior, which enables the superior to hold the subordinate accountable for performance.

Responsibility cannot be completely delegated. To do so would amount to abdication.

A competent leader will hold a subordinate accountable for performance by monitoring the execution of responsibility, and if the subordinate is not performing as expected, then the leader has two choices: either recall delegation, or step in to more closely supervise the subordinate in their execution of responsibility.

So, what did Mr Zuma actually do? He delegated the authority and responsibility to Ms Dlamini to execute the constitutional mandate of the Department of Social Development, to pay social grants to legitimate beneficiaries, and then he abdicated responsibility.

Despite his pathetic protestations to the contrary in Parliament on Friday, Ms Dlamini has failed miserably to execute that mandate, and he too has failed miserably by taking no remedial action, or by not recalling the delegation.

In conclusion, he cannot escape apex accountability for her gross dereliction of duty, because he is ultimately accountable for the actions or inactions of the people whom he appoints.

The buck stops with him at the Union Buildings, and no amount of obfuscation with the “collective” nature of the ANC’s accountability model will change that, because the courts – rightfully – pay no mind to such codswallop.

How this plays out in the long term, will be fascinating, because as I noted in my column last week, the court has reluctantly embarked on a voyage into heretofore uncharted judicial territory, but it has done so because it has little choice.

How else would the frequent catastrophic failures of governance be remedied?