Long queues. Security issues. Increased travel costs. Being turned away empty-handed because no money is available.
These are just some of the challenges affecting the millions of South Africans who rely on social grants for their livelihoods when they attempt to claim their monthly payments.
Until late 2018, the 10.9-million social grant beneficiaries in South Africa had a fairly simple way of collecting the money every month. They were given a South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) card, which could be used at dedicated pay points provided by Cash Paymaster Services (CPS).
The service was far from perfect – even leaving aside the Constitutional Court’s ruling that the CPS contract was unlawful, and continued to be unlawfully extended on the watch of former social development minister Bathabile Dlamini. Of primary concern was the exploitation of social grant beneficiaries, with advocacy group the Black Sash lobbying against deductions made from social grants to service debt.
But the provision of pay points provided a convenient way for people to collect their grants monthly.
When it was announced that the use of CPS would be phased out in 2018, it was originally Sassa’s intention to invite tenders for a new service provider to make cash point payments. This plan was subsequently abandoned, however, on the basis that infrastructure to make such payments already existed through the South African Post Office, and to transport cash to separate pay points represented an unnecessary risk and expense.
The result: almost 80% of cash pay points were closed, with the remainder placed under the management of the Post Office. Social grant recipients are now expected to claim their monthly payments either from the Post Office, from banks – through tellers or ATMs – or through a number of commercial retailers.
But research undertaken by the Black Sash and the University of the Western Cape (UWC), to be released in coming days, suggests that this new system has had adverse consequences for social grant recipients.
“The closure of almost 80% of cash pay points has had a devastating impact on social grant beneficiaries, especially in rural and peri-urban areas,” the Black Sash stated on Tuesday 8 October.
The NGO’s statement follows a presentation made to the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office on October 3 by UWC’s Professor Laurence Piper, in which he stated that the changed Sassa system has meant social grants recipients now have to join often long queues at Post Office branches, bank ATMs or shopping malls.
What this has meant for elderly people in particular, Piper said, is: “You could no longer move to the front of the queue; there are no chairs to sit on if you get tired of standing; there is no shelter provided necessarily and there is no water provided on a hot day.”
The research by Black Sash and UWC found that “the time and distance travelled to access grants has increased significantly, with exorbitant transport costs which they cannot afford”. This is particularly the case in rural areas, where access to Post Office branches, one of the designated commercial retailers or a bank ATM is not always available within a short distance.
Another issue is that beneficiaries now sometimes have to travel to multiple outlets in order to claim their money, because it is not uncommon to be told there is not enough cash to pay grants. Overall, the study finds that rural beneficiaries are now spending up to 6% of their grants on travel and fees (for instance, bank charges from ATMs) to access their grants.
Adding to the problem, says Black Sash, is when problems are experienced with collecting grants or the amount disbursed, pursuing recourse is now much more inconvenient.
Black Sash states:
“In the past, grant recipients could query problems with payment at the Sassa pay point. Now if there is a problem at a SAPO branch, ATM or retailer, they must make an additional trip to the Sassa office, and often the police station too to get an affidavit. This brings additional expenses, inconveniences and risks.”
The advocacy group says “at no stage” were beneficiaries informed by Sassa about the possible negative consequences of the pay point closures.
In addition, the new study finds that most social grant beneficiaries are “entirely unaware” that Sassa pledged several measures to ease the transition to the new system, including promising assistance with transport to claim grants.
The research concludes that the primary problem at the heart of the new system is that it represented, to quote Piper, “a move from a grant payment system designed around the needs of grant recipients, especially the elderly, to adding grant recipients to existing queues at ATMs, retailers and the Post Office”.
Yet, such queues are not set up to accommodate grant recipients in large numbers.
“The current situation cannot continue,” says Black Sash.
“The lives of the most vulnerable members of South African society are being compromised through constrained access to grants as a result of the decommissioning of pay points, and the inadequate provision of services by both Sassa and SAPO.”
Sassa did not respond to Daily Maverick’s requests for comment on Tuesday.
When the agency gave Parliament a progress report on the new system in March 2019, however, acting Sassa CEO Abraham Mahlangu was asked how he would rate the migration process on a scale of one (very bad) to 10 (excellent).
“On a scale of one to 10, we are sitting at nine at the moment,” Mahlangu responded. DM