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Reimagining social protection in South Africa: The case for basic income support

Reimagining social protection in South Africa: The case for basic income support
Elderly people at Ngqeleni Post Office, Eastern Cape, wait for their grant money on 3 October 2023. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

The precarious position of informal and low-paid workers was amplified during the pandemic. This includes those who are self-employed, gig workers, contract workers and seasonal workers. As they are all employed, they do not qualify for social assistance. Yet, as there are no formal contracts in place for informal and low-paid workers, they are unable to access social protection such as unemployment insurance.

Jo-Ann Johannes, a farmworker and member of the Women on Farms Project, is among the most vulnerable workers in South Africa. The seasonal nature of their work often renders them food insecure for up to six months a year. 

Social grants are, therefore, a lifeline for Johannes and fellow farmworkers. But, accessing these grants is a challenging process.

Johannes’ experience underscores the myriad challenges faced by informal and low-paid workers, including the bureaucratic red tape encountered when trying to access these vital resources. 

“It is absolutely vital that people receive this money. It’s not a lot of money, but R350 makes a difference if one is very poor,” said Johannes, referring to the Social Relief of Distress grant, which was introduced during the pandemic. 

However, accessing the grant is a major challenge; navigating the online application process, for instance.

“Farmworkers are mostly illiterate… they don’t have smartphones, and they can’t afford data,” Johannes explained.

The alternative to the online application process is applying in person at a Sassa office — all located a significant distance from farms.

“People have to borrow a lot of money and if you arrive at the office, you have to stand in long queues. Sometimes you are not helped, and you have to come back again.”

And the list of barriers to accessing these grants continues to grow. 

Grant recipients are penalised if there are other funds in their bank accounts; a recipient’s bank account must be empty and if any funds are picked up in the individual’s account, the grant application will be declined. 

If there is an error on the online application, it’s rejected.

One’s mobile number must remain the same — should it change during the application being processed, the applicant will not be notified about the outcome.

Policy and pushback

Prof Stephen Devereux, who holds the SA/UK Bilateral Research Chair in Social Protection for Food Security*, notes that South Africa has the most developed social protection system in Africa. This system encompasses various measures aimed at addressing the needs of the most vulnerable populations. 

These social protection measures include cash transfers, social relief programmes and other forms of assistance. 

“We follow the lifecycle approach, which means you have different programmes that are means-tested, targeting people at different stages of life,” said Devereux.

For children, there is the Child Support Grant, covering 12 million children (birth to 18 years of age), and the National School Nutrition Programme, which provides a meal to nine million learners daily. 

For working-age adults, there is the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) and social security like the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). However, both the EPWP and UIF have limited coverage for the unemployed. 

For older persons (60+), there is the Old Age Grant.

social protection south africa basic income support

Senior citizens queue for their monthly social grants outside Jabulani Mall in Soweto on 4 May 2020. (Photo: Gallo Images / ER Lombard)

While most countries in Africa do not offer this extent of cover, social protection has, as a policy agenda, seen significant uptake across the continent over the last 20 years. However, Devereux notes a turning point, as a result of recent shocks. 

These include the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. In some countries, there is pushback against social protection, with arguments that money should instead be spent on productive investments, rather than social welfare programmes.

Basic Income Support Campaign

With the fault lines in South Africa’s social protection landscape coming to the surface during the pandemic, a coalition of organisations rallied together to convene the Universal Basic Income Coalition, with the “Basic Income Support Campaign”. 

Their work thus far has included demanding government address the challenges with the Social Relief of Distress grant and making it a permanent form of social assistance for the unemployed (18 to 59 years old), as part of the process toward the realisation of a universal basic income.

One of the members of the coalition is Black Sash. Hoodah Abrahams-Fayker, Black Sash’s national advocacy manager, explained the campaign’s primary objective, which is to provide a universal basic income that better ensures financial security for all living in South Africa, and, in turn, reduces poverty and inequality. 

Under the current social assistance framework in South Africa, vulnerable groups that are included are people living with disabilities, children and the elderly. 

With rising unemployment and the “empty promise” of job creation, Abrahams-Fayker states that the unemployed should also be regarded as vulnerable. However, unemployed individuals are not eligible for social grants because they are able-bodied and, therefore, are considered capable of working — whether work is, in fact, available or not. 

Momentum and goals

While the Basic Income Support Campaign is gaining momentum, it still faces significant opposition. 

Negative attitudes, which suggest that social protection creates dependency or encourages childbirth for financial gain, pose a significant obstacle. 

Changing these perceptions is key to the campaign’s success and to implementing a transformative social protection programme; so too is political buy-in and a shift in economic policies.

“It’s the lack of jobs, unemployment, inequality, and poverty that’s creating the need for social grants. We are a relatively rich country, and while we can afford to provide grants, it’s not the best solution. 

“Ideally, you wouldn’t have millions of people getting social grants; you would have millions of people working and earning an income,” said Devereux.

For Abrahams-Fayker, the upcoming national elections provide a turning point in the right direction for the campaign. Already, the Department of Social Development has publicly expressed support for basic income support for 18- to 59-year-olds. 

Elections also present political parties and politicians with the opportunity to commit themselves to enhancing social protection and to put pressure on those in power to prioritise the most vulnerable citizens.

An expanded social protection system feeds into South Africa’s overall wellbeing, ensuring that more individuals can escape the cycle of poverty and insecurity. 

It’ll also move us further along in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – to which South Africa is a signatory. 

Social protection, Devereux explained, is mentioned in the SDGs and that by 2030, social protection coverage should be extended to meet the needs of all who require it. 

In working towards achieving this SDG goal, South Africa is also further along in its journey to ensure more citizens can access healthcare; parents and caregivers can afford to send their children to school; and families are better able to access, purchase and consume nutritious and sufficient food, thereby building a food-secure South Africa.

And it all begins with basic income support. DM

*The SA/UK Bilateral Research Chair in Social Protection for Food Security is housed within the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS). The CoE-FS is hosted by the University of the Western Cape, and co-hosted by the University of Pretoria.

Stephen Langtry is a freelancer at the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security.

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