FOOD BASKET CHECK
Price hikes on basics add strain to poor and hungry South Africans as grant payment glitches persist
As the Social Development Department contends with the challenge of providing grants to 19 million South Africans, the high cost of living limits the impact of social security efforts in curbing hunger.
In South Africa, 30.4 million people have less than R1,558 a month available for food and other necessities. That is just under 50% of the population of 62 million living below the upper-bound poverty line, according to national standards. Of the 30.4 million, 29.9 million are black.
There are 13.8 million who have even less, sitting below the lower-bound poverty line of R1,058. An average of 8.5 million receive the R350 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant, and more than 19 million receive child, disability, old age and other grants.
Daily Maverick tracks the cost of 14 basic goods that a person who receives the SRD grant might buy. The basket increased slightly from last month and is still more than R70 more than the R350 grant. This doesn’t take into account transport to the shop, airtime and data to apply for jobs, or check grant status, and personal grooming items such as soap, roll-on and lotion.
This month there was a price hike in bread, cooking oil and sugar beans, and a significant rise in tea bags.
This might partly be due to rising production costs. The Indian Tea Association (ITA), the leading body of tea planters, said in a BQ Prime report on Thursday that the industry is in a phase of acute financial crisis, with prices not keeping pace with the rising costs of production.
Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu has said in portfolio committee meetings that her department is formulating a plan to create opportunities for beneficiaries to create the means of earning an income. She said the government needed to focus on empowering women to form cooperatives which could combat weak economic growth. “The [department] would focus on implementing people-focused, innovative programmes that would assist with empowering the vulnerable people and enabling them to participate in the economy.”
In May 2023, Zulu was tasked with fast-tracking some of the following targets and present to Cabinet by the fourth quarter of 2022/23:
- White paper on social welfare and requisite standards;
- Comprehensive social security policy framework;
- Policy on coverage for 18- to 59-year-olds. The government had to view the SRD grant as not just a temporary measure, but a precursor to a permanent income support policy for the working-age population. Such a policy had to be complemented by coherent and well-designed active labour market interventions; and
- Resolution of payment challenges in the payment of Sassa grants – conclude renegotiation of the Sassa/Postbank partnership and improve access to financial service platforms for grant beneficiaries.
In October the two latter points remain among the biggest challenges facing the department, with glitches in grant payments this month (a pattern for a good chunk of 2023). There have been many reports of beneficiaries getting stuck without transport at payout points because they had borrowed money to get there, or ending up with much less of their grant money because they had taken out loans for the many trips they had to make to get the grant.
In a social development portfolio committee meeting in Parliament last week, Paulnita Marais of the EFF called the department incompetent and questioned why R6-billion was returned to Treasury while the country is in a hunger crisis. “You don’t have the capacity to run this department – R6-billion was sent back while people are struggling, going hungry. I also have a problem with the foster grant money being returned because they only top up people. Also, food parcels have not been given for years now but there are claims 33,000 parcels have been given out,” she said.
Marais said nothing was being done about the dysfunction in the department, from misspent money to corrupt employees and poorly executed policies. “We need to come up with ways to keep people accountable. This is the most important department in the country but it is not run well.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Postbank insists Mthatha social grant payments went smoothly, despite pensioners’ complaints of delays
Zulu gave an overview of the 2022/23 financial year and responded to some of the queries. She first acknowledged and commended the consistency of Stats SA and noted the implications of the increased number of citizens on Social Development and providing grants.
“We are doing the best we can but we are cognisant that it is not enough. The 2022/23 financial year demonstrated our commitment to meeting the needs of our people, we have learnt a lot but have had great successes.
“To begin with, we would like to apologise to all the applicants and beneficiaries of the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress for the challenges that you experienced with the end of the provisions of the national state of disaster under the Disaster Management Act, and the switchover to the regulations of the Social Assistance Act that facilitates the implementation of this benefit. These challenges point to the design and implementation difficulties that government programmes face in their formative stages
“We regret the pain and hardships that these challenges occasioned for many of you for whom this intervention is the difference between, on the one hand, hunger and indignity, and on another, leading a dignified life. This is noteworthy at this juncture when the country is on course with the implementation of the economic growth interventions that are designed to immediately lead us into a territory where more jobs can be created and more people can be gainfully employed or self- employed,” said Zulu.
Meanwhile, the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) and PayTheGrants continue to dispute the SRD regulations in litigation, claiming they exclude too many people who need the grant and should qualify. The case was launched in the Pretoria High Court in July this year against Sassa and the Social Development Department.
The court application aims to challenge the SRD regulations.
The IEJ is challenging the online-only application process, which excludes people who have no internet access.
It is also challenging the database verification procedure, which uses “outdated” and “erroneous” information from the South African Revenue Service, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and the Unemployment Insurance Fund.
The department’s acting director-general, Linton Mchunu, refuted Marais’s claim that R6-billion had been returned. “We have never returned R15-billion to the National Treasury, we returned R4.3-billion of the SRD and R1-billion in savings from other grants, because of stringent criteria after we received guidance from the National Treasury that we had to follow. This is a lie that gives people the idea we are failing.”
Marais had repeatedly said R6-billion, not R15-billion.
Mchunu said the funds were returned because the predictions are never accurate and the “stringent criteria” for accessing the grant meant fewer people than had been estimated had successful applications to receive the lifeline. DM