06 Feb 2020
The Joint Standing Committee on Defence was briefed by the Department of Military Veterans (DMV) on its efforts to complete the cleaning of the military veterans’ database within the previously committed three months. This was considered crucial in view of the reduction in funding being implemented before the Department’s resources were redirected to the maintenance of the expanded, unverified database. The Committee acknowledged the work that had been done so far, although progress had been gradual.
The Committee welcomed the DMV’s proposal for an information system that would safeguard the database, but expressed concern that the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) would not be able to provide the necessary computer software. Both departments were encouraged to work urgently to find the software to safeguard and ensure the validity of the database.
With regard to disciplinary action taken against DMV officials engaged in illegal and irregular activities in the provision of benefits to veterans, the Committee instructed the Department to provide a comprehensive report on progress in the implementation of consequence management by the following Tuesday. It also asked for details of all the cases of detected fraud involving DMV officials, the steps taken to discipline the culprits and report matters to the police, and money recovered that had been lost as a result of fraud.
The Committee expressed their regret that the term of the acting Director-General was coming to an end. Members were unanimous in their praise for the level of his dedication and professionalism, and thanked him for serving the Department with distinction.
Chairperson Xaba welcomed Committee Members to the virtual meeting, and recognised the presence of staff of the Department of Military Veterans (DMV). The meeting started with a review of the minutes of 6 February 2020, because they were relevant and key to the purpose of this meeting.
Lt Gen (Retd) Derrick Mgwebi, Acting Director-General (DG), DMV, said that in today’s presentation the Department would be able to indicate the latest developments since the meeting in February to which the minutes referred. The memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Department of Defence (DOD), Home Affairs had been completed, and it was only the engagement with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) that was still pending. As for the State Information Technology Agency (SITA), they were of the view that there was no need for an MOU because the Department was expected to work with them, based on the Act. The Commanders and their associations had now been sorted out.
Chairperson Xaba reminded the Director-General that there was a list the Committee had requested to be attached with the database. Was it going to problematic making it available?
Gen Mgwebi answered yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the names of individuals could be availed to the Committee, provided it ensured it would be safe in their hands. Beyond the names, it would be problematic to divulge any other information that related to any individual. It would be possible to produce the list, which involved between 65 000 to 85 000 individuals in the DMV’s database.
The Chairperson agreed that they understood there was information that had to be protected, and that the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) could also provide DMV with a list of individuals on their voters’ roll, minus the ID numbers and other confidential information.
DMV briefing: data cleansing of the military veteran’s database
Gen Mgwebi said that the record of Non-Starter Forces (NSF) on the Certified Personnel Register (CPR) who had been integrated into the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) were Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) 14 791, and the Azanian Peoples’ Liberation Army (APLA) 6 421, making a total of 21 212. MK and APLA members still serving in the SANDF were 5 365 MK and 2 660 APLA -- a total of 8 025. Members yet to be registered were 2 276 MK and 212 APLA -- 2 4880 in total.
The overall number of military veterans from all the formations and from different provinces alive and still serving in the SANDF was 62 461. Those who had passed on from all provinces, but were part of the database from all the formations, totalled 19 000 military veterans. The total number of NSF files yet to be verified from various formations under the auspices of the DOD amounted to 5 921 military veterans
Part of the issues being raised for the database to be credible and secure was that the following had to be provided;
- Signature specimens
- Audit trail
- Segregation of duties and user rights
- Robust database software and hardware
- Secure database backup solution
As part of the management solutions being developed, the DMV was engaging SITA. Confirmation of the business requirements was currently under way, and project governance structures were being put in place, even though executive structures were still to be agreed upon.
The Chairperson said that the presentation had addressed the database question that had been asked by the Members on 31 October. The question was, what would this process look like at the successful completion of this exercise? However, what it had failed to tell was when the final stage of the process would be reached. This matter had first been raised in Parliament in 2017 and brought back again in 2018, 2019 and now in 2020. It proved how central the database was to the business model of the Department. It also demonstrated how crucial it was towards ensuring that Parliament delivered a credible, foolproof document, as this had been going on for many years.
Mr T Mafanya (EFF) said the Committee now knew that a number of people were going to be enrolled into the system, but it also knew that SA had serious budget constraints. Even after being enrolled into the system, given the constraints mentioned earlier, how were these veterans going to be paid in the current climate of budget cuts?
Mr M Shelembe (DA) wanted know how long it would take to reply to a military veteran after receiving an application in terms of the Military Veterans Act? This question was being asked because it had come to the Committee’s attention that there were military veterans who had applied to the Department more than 15 months ago but had received no response. Some of them had been referred to a lady in the Department who had told to them to write either the housing or pension section. Why were they being referred to another section when they wrote to a head of Department? There were even military veterans who had applied before the onset of Covid-19 and had not received any response, and they had no benefits and were suffering. It would be good if the Committee was told the correct process to follow.
Gen Mgwebi said that Mr Shelembe was asking a very pertinent question with regard to service delivery. Government had all these good sounding terms and value systems to describe service delivery, and one of the values the Department should subscribe to was professionalism and compassion. The Department had set a standard that if someone applied, within 24 days they should know that their application had been received and was receiving attention. Those not qualifying should also be told. That was the level of professionalism the Department should adhere to, but it was not yet living up to. Any official who received an application from a veteran should provide assistance, and should take it to the right office. That was professionalism, service delivery and compassion in action. These were the Department’s shortcomings at the moment, and the culture of the organisation needed to change because it was not the right one.
The budget issues were mainly about processes and policies. If one talked to the community of veterans about housing, for instance, all the Department should do was to compile a list of veterans who were in need of housing, know where they stay and where they would love to be, and through the human settlements system confirm they were qualified, and pass the list to the Department. There was enough money in South Africa, but the system needed to be recalibrated and bureaucracy simplified.
He said the timeframe for the completion of the database exercise was being influenced by the attrition rate in the Department. People were appointed who one thought were capable, and they ended up staying only for six months and leave. There would be another three months of no director and chief director, then a director would be found who left again after three months. There was problem of leadership stability in the Department. These were the challenges identified in the Department. People were leaving because they the felt the culture of the Department did not suit them. However, working with Home Affairs, it should not take more than three months to complete the database, because everything was now in place. The only challenge was that there were people in the database who were not active. The challenge in terms of security would be credibility, but security would be informed by information communication technology (ICT). However, the ICT solution would depend on the State Information Technology Agency (SITA), which seems to be willing but unfortunately did not have the capacity to do what they really wanted to do.
The Chairperson asked how soon the Department could provide the Committee with all the cases of detected fraud involving officials in the DMV and the beneficiaries. It should also include steps taken to discipline the culprits and report the matter to the police. In instances where money was recovered, they should include how much money that was lost to the state as a result of fraud had been recovered. This matter was raised because the Committee had received reports from whistle blowers who alleged that a beneficiary had been arrested at the DMV for fraud, there was a bogus school paid three times the amount of R72 000, and a beneficiary in the Department was suspended for fraudulently claiming money for which his education was had been paid for by the Department. Another official at the DMV was suspected for paying for non-existent funerals. There was a long list of officials implicated in wrong doing, and although some action seemed to have been taken, it was not enough. How soon could the Committee get this information from the DMV? The Department should not wait for a meeting, but could send it in writing.
Gen Mgwebi promised to send the requested information on Tuesday, 17 November. The issues mentioned by the whistle blower had been spot on, and some disciplinary action had been taken, even leading to the dismissal of some staff. Some of the cases were also with the SAPS, and consequence management had taken place.
Referring to the structural history of the Department, he said the level of trust and readiness to discipline each other was lacking. Working with officials, he realised he might not succeed, so he had solicited the help of the Department Monitoring and Evaluation (DME), and as well as National Treasury in respect of irregular expenditure. They had established a team that had helped the Department on these issues. Now the Department knew what had happened and who was involved, and what was left was to take action on these findings as a project, with the help of the DME.
The Chairperson said it was really important to get the information in order to find out which people had resigned before the investigation was concluded. It was shocking to learn that some people had appeared in other departments with sanctions hanging over their heads, and one wondered how a person could defraud Department A, get dismissed, and reappear in Department B as a new employee. Why were government departments not standardised to detect these movements?
Mr S Marais (DA) said that the DG was not only a likeable person, but a competent one as well. He understood both sides of where military veterans operate, and what the challenge was. The DG should in future, when all the database verifications were taking place, remember medical-related issues for the veterans too. This was very important, because many of the military veterans complain that when they need to go for private medical support, their bills did not get paid. The suspicion was that the verification process that was lagging. That was why the cleanup of this database was very important, so that they could truly help those in need of the benefits. The Committee was hoping that the DG would make them proud on this issue too.
The Chairperson concurred with Mr Marais, and asked if the Committee could work on the basis of receiving a quarterly report summary of all cases lost, complaints logged in the quarter, the nature of the complaint, the age of the complainant, and the decision taken pertaining to the complaint. Secondly, all applications logged in the quarter, and the age of the applicant and decision taken in the application, should be included in that quarterly report as well.
Gen Mgwebi answered that where there was a will, there was a way. This was achieveable, and would surely assist the Department’s system if they were able to collate and harvest such information, and also track the progress made.
He thanked the Committee for their cooperation, and said that his time was up -- it was time for the right person to take the ship and steer it to its rightful position, as his acting capacity came to an end. He had come in just to help and had done what he needed to do, and if they did not meet next time, they should extend this level of cooperation to the new incumbent.
The Committee was unanimous in its praise for the level of Gen Mgwebi’s dedication and professionalism. He had been frank and candid with the Committee. He was thanked for demonstrating a rare level of competence that was required in executing his duties.
The Committee adopted the minutes of 28 May, 4 June, 18 June, 26 August, 27 August, 22 October and 29 October 2020.
The meeting was adjourned.
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