LIVES ON THE LINE
The Social Relief of Distress grant – where it began and why the state is still dithering on payments
Civil society has now got the litigation ball rolling since the government continues to grapple with a backlog of Social Relief of Distress grant payments. We explain the hold-up.
South Africa’s national state of disaster was announced in March 2020, leaving millions of unemployed and informally employed people without an income and facing desperate hunger.
The special Covid-19 R350 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant was introduced in April 2020 as a government intervention as jobs were lost owing to the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the economy. It was promulgated under the national state of disaster regulations and initially ended on 30 April 2021, sparking protests by scores of poor people and NGOs whose means of livelihood were still being affected by Covid-19.
As a result, the grant was extended for another year, until 31 March 2022. Then, after further lobbying and advocacy from civil society, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in his 2022 State of the Nation address that the grant would be extended even further, until March 2023, “to ensure that no person in this country has to endure the pain and indignity of hunger”.
While civil society organisations welcomed the extension, they warned that more still needed to be done to alleviate South Africa’s poverty crisis, particularly as it had been worsened by Covid-19. As an alternative, they proposed a Basic Income Grant, which the President says the government is still considering.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Reapplying for Social Relief of Distress grant leaves desperate citizens confused and suspicious”
Because the national state of disaster provided the legal basis for the SRD grant, when this was lifted on 4 April 2022 it became necessary for the grant provisions to be moved from the Disaster Management Act (DMA) to the Social Assistance Act (SAA) presided over by the Department of Social Development. The SSA had already made provision for social relief of distress, which is a constitutional right in terms of Section 27 (1) (c).
However, according to the government, this required that the more than million beneficiaries reapply for the grant, and it fell to the DSD, through the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) to ensure a smooth transition and payment of the SRD grants.
However, new procedures and requirements for application were only announced late on 24th April. At this point civil society was already warning that millions of people risked being excluded and not being paid.
In May 2022, when Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu tabled her 2022/23 budget in Parliament, she said R44-billion had been allocated for the SRD grant, which would be paid to about 10.9 million South Africans every month.
Civil society raises the alarm
On 9 June, civil society organisations #PayTheGrants, Amandla.mobi, Black Sash, the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) and the Social Policy Initiative raised the alarm that millions of poor people had not received their SRD grants for April and May. This meant the government had reneged on its undertaking, which was causing huge mental health strain and financial anguish.
According to the organisations, about 11 million of the poorest were no longer receiving the SRD grant. This disastrous situation may affect about half the South African population (if you consider that each beneficiary could have about two dependents).
New conditions imposed by the DSD unilaterally and without consultation or warning meant that a large number of people who previously qualified for the grant would no longer qualify. In addition, administrative chaos and bureaucratic obstructionism – including a failure to put necessary systems in place in time – mean that, although the government has said people will be paid by mid-June, there is little confidence that it will resolve all payments by then.
Post Office gets cancelled
In May 2022, the Post Office and Sassa announced that the former would no longer be paying out the SRD grant. Sassa said beneficiaries would now have to get their grants through bank accounts or retailers.
This decision excludes thousands of the most vulnerable individuals who rely most heavily on this meagre form of income support.
Read in Daily Maverick: “New Social Relief of Distress Grant regulation puts ‘millions’ at risk of hunger – activists”
The DSD said in Parliament last week that this issue with the Post Office affected “only” between 4% and 5% of beneficiaries. But this is still a huge number of people: between 400,000 and 500,000, many of whom may not have alternative means of payment. This was unacceptable, said civil society organisations.
What’s the hold-up?
Sassa executive manager Brenton van Vrede told DM168 the reason for the delay is the means test that is now required before approval for the grant. This test has been outsourced to banks who now check the amount of money that comes into a person’s account to ensure it is not above R350. Previously the DSD checked whether applicants were registered on the South African Revenue Service and/or Unemployment Insurance Fund databases to determine beneficiaries’ eligibility. However, this method, admitted Van Vrede, is not fail-proof and could lead to some people being unfairly rejected. Another challenge was that people didn’t always provide correct bank details, which caused payments to fail.
Van Vrede said Sassa had received and assessed 10.9 million SRD applications by June. These payments were already being made at a rate of one million beneficiaries a day and the agency was confident that all June SRD payments would be completed by the end of that month. The second run of payments in July would be the real test of whether the system was fully operational and running smoothly.
Sassa would pay out the July grants while back-paying the April grants. In August it would make payments for that month as well as outstanding May payments. Van Vrede said this approach means all payments will be up to date by September 2022 and the backlog cleared.
Asked why communication has been so poor, Van Vrede said Sassa has tried to keep the public informed through press releases on Twitter and Facebook, more than on its website.
Civil society fights back
Civil society did not take kindly to the government’s back-tracking and on 23 June Black Sash announced that it, represented by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, would launch an urgent application in the Pretoria High Court against the state for its failure to pay out SRD grants.
“We have attempted to engage with the government on the SRD grant crisis and pathways to address the issue over some months, including submitting detailed responses to the draft legislative framework for the SRD grant. The government ignored this feedback, and the final regulations introduced even more punitive restrictions on social assistance. There was no consultation with civil society on the retrogressive elements of these regulations”, the organisation told the media.
“The new R350 grant regulations not only exclude many people but have caused distress and confusion for many. One applicant stated: ‘I receive +-R390 monthly from a brother to pay my funeral policy, and I have R60. Now, should I ask my brother to stop sending me each month for a funeral policy premium and pay it himself while he is doing me a huge favour? Has Sassa forgotten that monies coming into our accounts must cover those important things?’
“Treasury’s underfunding of the R350 grant has contributed to these regulations, designed to make life even harder for those struggling to put food on the table. The launch of litigation is our last resort to continue holding Sassa, the DSD and the Presidency accountable for failing to implement a R350 grant system that can be accessed quickly and timeously by all those in need.”
Neil Coleman, co-founder of the Institute for Economic Justice, said it would launch supporting legal action against the government. Lawyers had already sent papers to the government on behalf of the institute, and he believed the government could resolve the non-payment crisis immediately if it decided to eliminate cumbersome bank processes and take up the alternative proposals for SRD grant payments that the institute had sent to them. Coleman previously told DM168 that he had proposed:
- An emergency condonation and payment of all April-May applications, that is, payment based on declarations people have made – all applicants have had to disclose information via the payment systems. This would be an acknowledgement by the government that applicants have not been made, not due to any fault of theirs, but because the change in procedures took place without the necessary systems being established. Further, that the government cares about their plight;
- Any fraudulent claims can be dealt with in due course (the grants have been one of the best-administered government programmes with only about 0.2% of payments being fraudulent);
- If necessary, an emergency amendment should be made to the regulations to facilitate this intervention.
“Black Sash has gone above and beyond to engage the government. Litigation is a last resort, that’s why we waited this long since the initial engagement with the President in January. We remain open to having conversations that will have a meaningful impact on people’s lives,” said Black Sash national director Rachel Bukasa.
“What kind of society have we become when we think R350 is a luxury?” DM/MC
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.
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