A total of 333,233 irregular social grants worth an annual R1 billion have been removed from the system in the past three years, Social Development Minister Zola Skweyiya said on Tuesday.

Addressing the media in Pretoria on the fight against fraud and corruption in the social grant system, Skweyiya said “substantial” progress had been made since the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) had been appointed to investigate irregularities.

“Already the successes of this partnership have exceeded the cost of our investment and prompted us to continue with the arrangement.

This should send a strong message that corruption will not be tolerated be it opportunistic or systematic.” Skweyiya said the department and the SIU had started to identify trends and patterns in the type of people abusing the system, especially with new applications, existing grants, and administration.

This had assisted in highlighting the methods used by individuals and syndicates targeting the system.

“It has come to light that the grants most affected by the syndicates are disability and child support grants.”

The syndicates were believed to be selling falsified medical certificates for a fee of between R300 and R1000, and false clinic cards to members of the public who use these to apply for child support grants for non-existent children.

He said the department had to be “extra vigilant” since the high court ruled that people could apply for child support grants with alternative forms of identification — such as sworn statements from a commissioner of oaths.

“We were opposed to the court action for fear that allowing use of alternative identification would make the system vulnerable to fraud,” Skweyiya said, adding that the court’s judgment was respected and the department was implementing its directive.

About nine million people and over 12. 6 million grants are registered on the system.

SIU deputy head Faiek Davids said the investment in rooting out corruption had shown an “overwhelming” return. Stand out achievements included the removal of grant beneficiaries which amounted to 2.6 percent of the total number of grants.

He said just over 17,000 disciplinary cases had been recommended; 21,189 Acknowledgement of Debts (AOD) had been secured; amd R29.5 million out of R114 million had been repaid. Out of 9551 people who had been charged in court, 7786 had been convicted.

“The repayments show that people are taking accountability for their illegal benefits.”

The department had also saved R881 million as a result of removals. Davids said an amount of R8.4 million in preventative savings had also been achieved.

Interviews with offenders had shown that they realised their actions were wrong and it was “phenomenal” that the rate of repeat offences was zero, said Davids. Critical activities going forward included looking more closely at systematic abuse by syndicates, and loopholes which rendered the system susceptible to abuse such as the use of alternative forms of identification.

Skweyiya said the estimated R1.5 billion that was lost to fraud and corruption annually could go a long way to assisting the needy in the country.

“Those who steal from this fund need to reconsider their actions or face the consequences of those actions.” Intimidation of honest officials and whistleblowers would not be tolerated.

Skweyiya was referring to the recent murder of Thembinkosi Dlamini — the office manager of Enseleni in KwaZulu-Natal. He said Dlamini had exposed more than 300 fraudulent disability grants and a few days later he had been murdered.

“The audacity of these criminals who carried out this act is shocking. We have received reports that these criminals have been apprehended and will face the full might of the law.”