Covid-19

Poverty crisis

Social Development proposes extension of Covid-19 social relief of distress grant, but Treasury stands in the way

People queue at a South African Social Security Agency building in Cape Town. (Photo: Gallo Images / Nardus Engelbrecht)

This week civil society organisations, together with prominent individuals such as University of Stellenbosch Social Justice Chair, Thuli Madonsela, rallied to demand an extension to the Covid-19 social relief of distress (SRD) grant, an increase from R500 to R585 per month, and an extension of eligibility to include caregivers. 

Their calls and a statement signed by hundreds of organisations were made at a press conference on Thursday and came on the eve of the SRD grant lapsing at the end of January (Sunday). The grants lifeline, currently benefiting nearly seven million people, will be cut even though South Africa is still in the thick of a second wave of Covid-19 infection and deaths, as well as a level three lockdown under the State of Disaster that has once again shuttered many parts of the economy and caused a loss of further jobs and livelihoods.

Although the government tracks the exact numbers of Covid infections and deaths, the same cannot be said about its precise impact on our economy and society. However, in anecdotal reports from NGOs, churches, feeding programmes, and healthcare workers it is clear that the toll is enormous – and growing. A much clearer empirical understanding is only weeks away when, on 15 February, the “third wave” of the NIDS-Coronavirus Rapid Mobile study, which has surveyed hunger, employment, health and education over the course of the epidemic, is due to be released.

This is the context for intense pressure now on the government and may explain reports that have emerged in the past 24 hours of divisions within the ANC and within government on whether or not to extend grants as well as over a basic income grant (BIG).

Most significantly, Maverick Citizen has learnt from reliable sources that the Department of Social Development (DSD) has made a proposal to the Treasury that the SRD grant be extended for 15 months, until the end of March 2022. The Minister of Social Development has also responded positively to a request for an urgent meeting with the C-19 People’s Coalition, Black Sash and the #PayTheGrants Campaign.

The Treasury has not yet responded to the DSD’s application for an extension. However, we have also been informed that Treasury’s position remains fundamentally at odds with the DSD over this and other social security measures. 

At the recent ANC lekgotla, for example, there are reported to have been deep differences in approach between the Covid Commission (which supported extending the grants) and the Economic Transformation Commission, led by Finance Minister Mboweni and Enoch Godongwana, which is resolutely against an extension. 

It is also reported that the lines of this division also play out in the same way over the proposed BIG, for which there is growing support in the DSD, National Planning Commission and the ANC’s social transformation committee. It is believed that detailed costings have been done on all these measures showing that they are affordable and would help South Africa weather the Covid storm socially and economically.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has given mixed signals on the issue. 

On the one hand he told Radio 702 that there was “simply no money” to extend the grants. However, in a closing address to the ANC lekgotla he stated: “The lekgotla has agreed that, in the context of the continuing Covid pandemic, we need to consider the extension of basic income relief to unemployed people who do not receive any other form of state assistance,” adding that the extension of the income grant “would depend on the state of public finances and that there should be a clear exit strategy”.

It seems inevitable that in coming days and weeks these divisions will come to a head and that the president in particular will have to take a stand in favour of one side or another. The issue has been on the agenda at Nedlac, the Cabinet is currently in its annual lekgotla and this weekend there is a national coronavirus command council where the issue will be raised. If Cabinet postpones an immediate decision, it is likely to only make divisions more acute: the next NIDS-CRAM report, which will not be pretty, comes out in the days between this year’s state of the nation address (11 February) and Budget speech (24 February), and its findings are likely to underline demands that the government ensures the constitutional right to social security for millions of poor people for the duration of a crisis that – given the delay in obtaining vaccines and developing a cogent roll-out plan – will almost certainly see third and fourth waves that stretch into 2022. DM/MC

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"