Many a big crisis is a series of seemingly isolated events in different sectors at the same time. Sometimes they’re a flash in the pan, doing limited damage. But sometimes they arrive at the same historical moment as other events, merging into messy chaos. They are often the work of different actors, pulling in different directions. This makes blame hard to pin down. But we are about to have a crisis that is entirely different. The fiasco around the social grant payments is entirely the making of the people responsible and no one else’s. Should the worst happen, the results of the crisis and their impact on South Africa are too ghastly to contemplate. But the cooler analytical heads now also have to measure the political price the ruling party is going to pay because of the reckless actions by one Bathabile Dlamini. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
If there is one big success in this country since 1994, one thing that has improved the lives of people without many resources, it is social grants. There is almost no possible argument against them. The right-wing “people must stand on their own two feet brigade” need only to be told one simple fact, before being forced to sit down. It is this: children who live in homes that receive a social grant are a whole centimetre taller than children who live in homes that don’t. Never mind the importance in overall nutrition, health, and how that knocks on to the ability to learn at school, etc. It is worth repeating: on social grants, the ANC, government, and the entire nation together (including opposition parties), has a good story to tell.
In some ways, what is really standing between us and the national revolt that so many have been warning about for so long, is social grants. It is a tool, limited as it is, of redistribution in a country with incredibly high, and generational, inequality.
But now, as we all know, this appears to be under threat. By Wednesday afternoon the SA Social Security Agency had confirmed, once again, that it does not know how it will pay the 17-million social grants in April. The lead-up to this has been well reported. SASSA was told its current contract with Cash Paymaster Services was illegal; it knew in October that it wouldn’t be able to make the payments itself, there is no one else in the country with the infrastructure to do it, and CPS is now in a better negotiating position than a bully in an orange wig with the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal at his fingertips.
The only way to truly ensure that this crisis does not result in millions of starving people now is to do a deal with the devil. Serge Belamant appears to have broken as many regulations as possible to get this contract in the first place. In the end, government will have to pay, and he and he alone gets to set the price.
But even then, there is no certainty that it can all be done. He has complained that the contracts of his own suppliers and staff are due to end in just a month’s time. It would take a massive effort to ensure that no one is missed when the payments are due to be made at the end of March.
It is in the very make-up of most politicians to blame someone else for mistakes made on their watch. The ANC government always had foreign intelligence agencies who could be charged with “handling” a public protector, opposition parties for dysfunction in Parliament, non-Alliance unions for Marikana, news media for making the people of South Africa know too much. If there was a problem, there was a reason, sometimes legitimate, sometimes not, why it was not the fault of the ANC. President Jacob Zuma and those around him have taken this to new levels, blaming the new phrase of “white monopoly capital”, and even the Constitution, for their failure to act on pressing issues.
But the case of social grants is different to almost all that we have seen before. There is simply no one else to blame.
Social grants as we currently understand them only started to be paid by government after 1994. There is no “past” to blame. This is not a case where government has run out of money – it is there – it is just in danger of not being paid out. There is no ratings agency that has stopped people from investing, no outside organisation that has declared a financial war on us. There is no opposition party that has taken away the grants, no representative of “white monopoly capital” who has gone to court to stop them. (There is, of course, a representative of white capital in whose sole interest Minister Dlamini appears to be acting – Serge Belamant and his Net1.) There is no judge to blame, no structural reason that we can blame on the past.
All that has happened is that the people in charge are so incompetent, and so uncaring, and allegedly so corrupt, that they are unable to guarantee the distribution of the payments of the next tranche of social grants.
What is supremely baffling in this gambling with South Africa’s future, though, is just how crucially important the social grants are for the ANC’s continuing viability as a governing party. They have been listed among the main reasons why, especially in rural areas, the voters continue to support the ANC in the national elections. It is an act of supreme political foolishness to cede the social grants high ground to the DA and EFF, who are now seen as defenders of the masses from the ANC’s incompetence.
The elections of 2019 are around the corner and it is unlikely that the electorate will forget any time soon that their lives were used as casino chips in a high-stakes gamble. The ANC is already on the back foot with the electorate. Even if, ultimately, the grants are to be paid on time, the damage to their standing will be considerable.
But should they cause the ultimate failure, just imagine what it would do: Millions of families affected. Everyone would know someone who relies on a social grant. They would know about the misery this governance failure has inflicted on them, even if only for a week or two. This would not be something that can be spun away, or dealt with through clever media manipulation. The story would not be told only by the media, but by the sufferers. That type of damage cannot be undone any time soon, or ever.
The last failure of governance that comes even close to this by the ANC was the electricity crisis of 2008. Then, despite a warning in a government green paper several years before, there was no investment in power stations, and so we ran out of electricity. We are still living with the consequences of that specific disaster. Fortunately, only few people died as a consequence of the crisis. We would not be so lucky this time.
But it is not just the ANC who would suffer from this. The entire state would be damaged. Many aspects of our government are called into question: people do not trust elected officials, the police, the intelligence services, the criminal justice system, even at times the education system. Grants play a role in helping to legitimise the state. They are an example of the state doing good, and helping people who may otherwise feel it does nothing for them, and thus they should not bother to respect it. Were we to lose that, the state would lose a big part of its residual legitimacy.
Every South African must hope, and if so inclined, pray, that none of this comes to pass. But the fact that we are here, so close to the precipice, is a sign that those involved are at the very least incompetent. Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini’s behaviour is not just scandalous, or unacceptable or irresponsible. It borders on evil.
If one day in 2019 the ANC finds itself a minority party, they might want to look back to the days in early 2017, when one of their own almost singlehandedly threw away one of the biggest political advantages in modern history. DM
Photo: Supporters of the ‘Hands off our Grants’ campaign demonstrated outside St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. Ashraf Hendricks / GroundUp
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