SENIOR government officials have defrauded the KwaZulu-Natal department of social development of more than R40million, a forensic investigation has revealed.

MEC for finance Ina Cronje, and of social development, Meshack Radebe, said the culprits had pocketed large sums of money for "projects, some of which never existed".

At least 179 people in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, the Midlands and Ulundi would face criminal and civil charges.

"The National Prosecuting Authority has advised us not to name the suspects until the time is right, but I can assure the public that these people will be arrested," said Cronje.

She said officials no longer in government employment who cannot be charged with misconduct would face criminal and civil charges.

According to Radebe, his department appointed the Independent Development Trust (IDT) in April 2008 to conduct a review of funded projects through the Integrated Social Development Programme.

He said this was to assist in the development and implementation of a comprehensive project monitoring system, value for money assessment and sustainable support to viable projects.

"The IDT exercise revealed financial mismanagement in 127 projects and recommended that a forensic investigation be carried out to determine the extent of financial mismanagement.

"The exercise also recommended the prosecution of all offenders and recovery of public monies," he said.

His department had reported the recommendations to the finance portfolio committee. The committee had then resolved the provincial treasury conduct the investigation.

He said soon thereafter a task team was established to implement the recommendations.

The task team included the SAPS' commercial crime unit, the NPA and the special investigation unit.

The forensic investigation focused mainly on the status of funded non-profit organisations by providing evidence in respect of administrative, management and control function; financing and control functions; assets and control functions; and "collusion between officials of the department, members of various organisations and suppliers in perpetrating the alleged offences".

"The forensic investigation's findings identified key priority areas of responsibility to be implemented, such as the freezing of implicated accounts, recovery of public funds, institution of criminal proceedings against implicated persons, the recovery of assets and institute disciplinary proceedings against implicated officials," Radebe said.

In cases where monies had been withdrawn from bank accounts, assets and property would be repossessed and sold to recover the money, he added.