South Africa

Social Relief of Distress

Concern that the extended Covid-19 relief grant of R350 is too low and will not reach intended recipients

The Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant was reinstated in July 2021 after it was terminated at the end of April 2021. (Archive photo: Masego Mafata)

The Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant extension has been welcomed by civil society amid concern about implementation issues. Research shows an urgent need to eliminate the obstacles that potential recipients have to climb to get the grant.

The Black Sash has for some years been part of a civil society coalition lobbying for a basic income grant. In a media release the organisation welcomed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that “the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) Grant will be reinstated until March 2022”.

Hailing the extension of the grant to South Africans aged 18-59, the organisation stated that, “We are pleased that the grant’s eligibility criteria has now been expanded to include unemployed caregivers who receive the Child Support Grant (CSG) on behalf of children.” That is just about the brightest spark of the announcement, as was shown on Tuesday during a webinar hosted by the Black Sash to launch a research report it commissioned, “Social Protection in a Time of Covid (Lessons for Basic Income Support)”.

The research report was authored by independent researcher Engenas Senona, who has worked in the area of social protection for over a decade; with Dr Erin Torkelson of Durham University, who has researched social grants and how it links to debt and capital; and Dr Wanga Zembe-Mkabile, a specialist scientist in the Health Systems Research Unit of the SA Medical Research Council. The authors, alongside longtime Black Sash paralegal fieldworker for KZN Nelisiwe Xaba, led the webinar.

The study covered all nine provinces and covered September through November of 2020. A total of 26 people “affected by the Covid-19 SRD Grant” were interviewed monthly, over the three months. Because of the pandemic, these interviews were telephonic. The study “sought to understand how the Covid-19 SRD Grant was distributed and how people experienced its distribution”.

The study included:

  • Successful and unsuccessful Covid-19 SRD grant applicants; 
  • Caregiver allowance recipients; and 
  • Asylum seekers and special permit holders.

The research noted that a big failing of the Covid-19 SRD grant is that many were excluded from accessing this much-needed lifeline. Of the nine million people who applied for this special grant for people aged 18-59, only six million were accepted – mainly due to system inefficiency.

“The online system was inaccessible and exclusionary for those with no digital devices, internet access and digital literacy.”

Torkelson told the webinar that not only did the R350 fall well below the food poverty line of R585, but the budget allocated towards these payments was inadequate. Torkelson said this meant that among the application processes were checks meant to eliminate applicants in order to make sure there were enough funds for the applicants who were accepted.

The report explains how the government just did not have enough money “to provide for the 10.4 million people who needed the grant”. One unnamed government official is quoted as saying, “The key reason for the stringent regulations was this thing about how much money we had…. And we had a really small budget, in which we had to fit the most vulnerable people.”

There were also problems for those who did make it onto the recipient list: “The South African Post Office (Sapo) did not process cash payments efficiently. Branches ran out of cash, their technology often did not work, and long queues were not well managed.”

Xaba has been with the Black Sash for almost 20 years and was invaluable in KZN during the pandemic – both for her assistance to the communities on the ground and for the research insights she gleaned while doing her job as a paralegal fieldworker. Speaking to Daily Maverick after the webinar, Xaba said there were many issues with just applying for the Covid grant.

“Getting through to Sassa [SA Social Security Agency] was very hard and it took most people’s airtime and data, just waiting to connect to a website or to speak to a person,” said Xaba, explaining that she developed a system of getting on to the internet at night, when fewer people were trying to do so.

“It was easier to get into the website at night, but there were many problems with people being declined with a message that said they had ‘other source of income’, like my daughter who has never been employed.”

Torkelson said that many of the databases used by Sassa, like SARS and Sapo, had incorrect information, which led to many people’s applications being erroneously rejected.

Xaba said people who did get on to the database still had issues like not being paid directly into bank accounts even though that information had been requested and they had supplied it. She said people still ended up paying large sums to taxis – R30 is a large chunk of a R350 grant – to get to a post office and “some people had to queue from 4am to get their money”.

She says while she thinks some of these issues with applications may have been resolved, she is concerned that in parts of KZN people will have difficulty accessing their grants because of looting damage. She mentions the MegaCity mall in Umlazi where “the Spar, the Pick n Pay and the Pep were all places where people could collect grant monies, but they were all damaged in the looting”. DM

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