The toll free number that the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) provides for people to register for food parcels by selecting option three doesn’t even ring. “Sorry, the dialled number is busy,” an electronic voice says, before the connection cuts. Several hours later on Monday, same result.
There are simply not enough lines to meet the desperation as the hard Covid-19 lockdown has devastated the informal income streams millions of South Africans rely on to eke out their survival.
That the entity meant to look after the well-being of South Africans does not seem to be ready to meet the challenge is not necessarily a surprise. It closed its offices at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown.
But Sassa is not alone. The Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) call centre at the end of March, even ahead of the lockdown, was swamped – and continues to be.
“Kindly note we are experiencing high volumes of queries on the Ufiling support mailbox [email protected] Please be patient, the support team is doing everything to attend to those inquiries,” says the message on the UIF website.
There had always been concerns whether the UIF, long criticised for inefficiencies, would be able to cope. That’s why government introduced a special Covid-19 Temporary Employer Employee Relief Scheme to be applied for at [email protected] It was to be paid through companies, sectoral bodies or bargaining chambers because “the UIF cannot deal with millions of individual claims. This would lead to delays in the processing of such claims”, as Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi put it during a public briefing on Tuesday 1 April.
As the UIF struggles to cope with what could not have been an unexpected response, given the hard lockdown, so was Small Business Development.
It had to go back to the drawing board a few times, including substituting the PDF application with one that could actually be edited. It was “a lesson learnt”, according to Small Business Development Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni at a ministerial update briefing earlier in April, given that no internet cafes would be open during lockdown.
The minister said the PDF application form had been changed now to allow it to be completed online to facilitate applications for small business relief. But that meant a delay, on top of the publicly acknowledged confusion between the required registration on the national SMME database as a prerequisite for application, and the application process itself.
The Small Business Development call centre dealing with Covid-19 relief applications has extended its operating hours from 8am to 10pm Monday to Fridays and 8am to 2pm over weekends and public holidays.
But the reality is that four days after the initial lockdown was meant to have ended, the support promised on 24 March, or three days before the lockdown, doesn’t seem to have materialised yet. Not by Small Business Development, not by the UIF nor elsewhere as civil society organisations, again, step into the breach to deliver food aid.
On Saturday, Arts, Culture and Sports Minister Nathi Mthethwa announced that he’s appointed the adjudication panels to make recommendations on the received applications for Covid-19 relief.
The members of the panels are seriously experienced and independent minded, but still the appointments were made on the day the initial lockdown was meant to end, 17 April. The official ministerial statement did not indicate a deadline by when the arts and culture and sports adjudication panels must submit their recommendations to the minister for a final decision before any relief can be paid out.
The feathers are flying over whether rotisserie chicken is an essential good, or a bourgeoisie fancy, but the real worry is how faceless bureaucrats interpret and reinterpret regulations.
Whether that’s issuing an edict on no cooked food at grocery shops – often the elderly and those who live in shacks without proper cooking facilities rely on purchasing cooked food – or switching from one week to the next the okay on transporting wine for export to a ban on transporting alcohol unless it’s for sanitisers.
Perhaps even more worrying in this exercise of bureaucratic largesse is the police, who have the powers to confiscate, fine and arrest. And so reports have surfaced of police confiscating beers from within people’s houses, never mind the scores of complaints of abuse of power, assault and the like against these law enforcers.
An official police statement headed “SAPS displays unbiased commitment in the fight against the Covid-19 Virus”, outlines the arrest of 11 police officials and one reservist at the weekend for breaches of the lockdown regulations. Those include partying in a Phuthaditjhaba tavern, and the arrest of six members of two Pretoria police stations for having stolen over R30,000 in cash from a group of people going through a road block.
When the law becomes a law unto itself, the state and its public service machinery is compromised, dysfunctional and without capacity.
To date no one has fully explained why in the first 10 days or so spaza shops were closed. Never mind tendering an apology. That’s despite all public indications right from the first ministerial briefing on 24 March showing that spaza shops should remain open.
Three days ahead of lockdown, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula encouraged everyone to “walk to their local shops”, while on Day One of lockdown Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel said “over the next three weeks, grocery stores and spaza shops will be the only places were South Africans need to go for basic and essential goods”.
It didn’t happen that way as spaza shops were closed down, alongside the informal sector food suppliers, be they amagwinya sellers or fruit and vegetable hawkers. It hit hard not only the food security of millions of people already vulnerable but also security of income, given the widespread dependence on the informal economy.
A ministerial directive on 6 April finally fixed this – spaza shops and fruit and vegetable informal traders were finally declared essential services – with the rider that they needed to be South African-owned with all the necessary permits.
While the status remains unclear of the support packages for hawkers and at least some categories of self-employed, at least the support measures for spaza shops and general dealers, initially set to be announced on 2 April, were finally made public on 18 April.
The administrative burden to qualify for support is not insubstantial, ranging from compliance with tax and UIF requirements and owning the necessary permits. The onus is put on those looking for assistance and support to comply – and prove their compliance.
The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown seems to have shattered politicians’ talk of the capable developmental state. Four days after the end of the initial 21-day Covid-19 lockdown, and three days into the two-week extension, few if any clear indications exist that the state has delivered on its promises of support.
If and when that support comes, it may just be too late. DM
Harrison Ford suffers from a fear of public speaking.