Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini could do jail time if she is found to have committed contempt of court — but this would only happen in "exceptional circumstances," retired Constitutional Court Justice Zak Yacoob said.
Yacoob told Huffington Post South Africa that ministers who ignore court orders "will be jailed if they commit contempt of court, but that will happen in exceptional circumstances".
He said things were not "as bad" as made out.
"I think that the government obeys court orders generally speaking. There are times when it finds itself in difficulty and does awkward things, but I think these matters can eventually come right. But if it is established that any member of government, whoever it is, has intentionally violated a court order, then contempt of court proceedings will necessarily follow. That is the law of the land at the moment."
Dlamini has until the end of Monday to tell the Concourt what is going on with the social grants issue: when she was informed that the South Africa Social Security Agency (Sassa) could not take over the payment of grants from next month; who were the people responsible for making decisions about the payment of grants; whether there was an agreement with Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) about that company continuing to pay grants after the end of this month; and what the details of this agreement were.
The case is due to be heard two days later on March 15.
The court in 2014 ruled that the agreement with CPS was unlawful and it ordered Sassa to find another service provider from April 1 onwards. Sassa has failed to do so as yet.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa told Parliament on Thursday that the courts and the department needed space to deal with the matter. "I am absolutely certain a solution is going to be found," he said.
There are 17 million social grants at stake.