MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED
Time to give: Government must increase and extend, not terminate, its social relief grant
South Africa’s inequality, poverty and hunger are neither an unexpected crisis nor a short-term problem, and the state’s response should bear this in mind. Extending the Covid-19 social relief of distress grant until 2022 would create time and space for more permanent income security measures.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic South Africa was the most unequal country in the world, with the wealthiest 10% of the population holding between 90% and 95% of the country’s wealth. The pandemic has made the emergency more acute, but we’ve been in crisis for a very long time. To treat actions that relieve the emergency as temporary is to ignore how deeply embedded and structural the crisis is.
As the death toll of the second wave of Covid-19 continues to devastate the country and lockdown Level 3 remains in place, the government has taken the step to end the Covid-19 social relief of distress (SRD) grant at the end of January 2021.
Moving forward, we need to consider the expanse of inequality in our country – in terms of scale and time. Actions we take need to be widespread and long-term.
The R350 monthly SRD grant has helped millions of families put food on the table following a year of massive job losses and deep economic and social distress. While insufficient, it has been crucial at a time where the poverty rate increased sharply, and the prices of food and household staples continue to rise. Our government cannot rightly call for physical distancing and solidarity on the one hand and on the other create conditions where the most vulnerable are robbed of the social protection needed to survive this crisis.
Persistent and predictable
We write this piece with questions of temporality in mind. Words like “emergency”, “crisis” and “distress” all imply an unexpected and short-term situation. However, many aspects of the emergency we find ourselves in are either persistent or predictable, often both. National Treasury has become even more intransigent in providing emergency funding for critical needs, including for a vaccine, despite numerous proposals by civil society on how to unlock resources.
Furthermore, a second wave of infections was predictable and the government should have put the necessary protective measures in place for individuals, households and businesses devastated by the economic crisis. Instead, two of the most important measures – the caregiver and SRD grants – have been terminated.
In October 2020, after sustained pressure, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the SRD grant would be extended for three months (until the end of January 2021). While the brief extension was welcomed, the withdrawal of the caregiver grant displayed contempt for women and children. We were also dismayed at the persistence of the insufficient grant amount, the period of extension and the dismal implementation of the SRD grant.
The child support grant is by far the biggest grant in terms of numbers, reaching 12.8 million children – nearly two-thirds of all children in South Africa. It is received every month by more than seven million adult caregivers and contributes to the income of nearly 5.7 million households. This grant is a meagre R440 per month per child, which is below the food poverty line of R585. The caregiver grant was a monthly top-up of R500 given to caregivers (regardless of the number of children being cared for). Once this was terminated caregivers could not qualify for the SRD grant since they received the child support grant.
In this formulation, women are not only expected to take care of children but they are punished for it. In response to the initial civil society statement calling for the increase and an extension of the grant, the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) expressed how vital the grants are for women, especially those suffering gender-based violence. If the government is to align its rhetoric to action it must either reinstate the caregiver grant or amend the SRD grant conditions to include caregivers to qualify.
The centrality of time in the sphere of grants is perhaps most apparent in acts of waiting.
It is unfortunately not an anomaly for grant claimants to face long queues during the administration and payment of their grants. This brings additional insecurity during a pandemic when proximity and confinement escalate the risk of infection.
The violent treatment of poor and black grant claimants in lines outside Sassa offices and Post Office branches stands in stark and shameful contrast to the treatment of mostly white South Africans who protested on 30 January 2021 to open the beaches in the Western Cape. On 15 January grant claimants queuing outside Sassa offices in Bellville in the Western Cape to reapply for temporary disability grants were aggressively targeted by water cannon. In the last week of January claimants in queues were pepper-sprayed as they waited. Claimants find themselves risking infection and attack to claim their money.
Through our work with the #PayTheGrants Campaign we’ve been inundated with instances of applicants for the SRD grant waiting (sometimes indefinitely) for information about the outcome. Applicants have sometimes had to apply on a month-by-month basis – lacking clarity and waiting to hear whether they’ll have the small cushion that R350 can provide.
We all find ourselves waiting again.
We wrote this on the last day of the month that the SRD grants were due to be terminated. Will millions of people be closer to starvation? The lack of clarity is deafening.
Yet, as the #PayTheGrants Campaign we find ourselves waiting for an urgent meeting with the president, the Ministry of Social Development and National Treasury, to whom we have written. Despite being in touch with us (slowly, belatedly and with little urgency) they have yet to confirm a meeting time. The demands that we laid out remain:
- Extend and increase the Covid-19 R350 SRD grants to at least the food poverty line of R585 per person per month;
- Reassess the unduly harsh and narrow criteria for accessing the grant;
- Ensure that caregivers qualify for the SRD grant, regardless of whether they are receiving a child support grant on behalf of their children;
- Institute retrospective pay for recipients in the event that the grant is not immediately extended; and
- Outline clear and urgent steps to progress towards implementation of the long-overdue basic income guarantee (grant) for those aged 18 to 59.
Depth and duration
We have been made aware that the Department of Social Development has put in a proposal to extend the Covid-19 grant for 15 months, but this needs to be approved by National Treasury.
In a closing address to the ANC lekgotla, Ramaphosa 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.” The extension of the income grant would “depend on the state of public finances”, and “there should be a clear exit strategy”.
The time for consideration is long expired and the implied exclusion of caregivers in this relief is worrying. Perhaps most illogical is the idea of an exit strategy – a phrase that ignores the depth and duration of our structural crisis.
We need to have the long term in mind. There are no permanent jobs and unemployment will persist and worsen. We see our demand for the extended and increased Covid-19 SRD grant until the end of March 2022 as a way of creating time and space for more permanent income security. It is a temporary bridge towards implementing a basic income guarantee (BIG), demands for which will only continue to gain ferocity.
Perhaps unexpectedly, as the C19 People’s Coalition Cash Transfers Working Group we also see a universal basic income guarantee as a bridge. Our end goal is not, and has never been, a universal basic income guarantee, for as an end in itself it lacks imagination and radical redistributive justice. We do think, however, that a universal basic income guarantee can allow stability and, critically, time, as we organise and build towards a better world. DM/MC
Natasha Vally and Shaeera Kalla are part of the C19 People’s Coalition Cash Transfers Working Group and write as part of their #PayTheGrants campaign
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