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ANALYSIS

Coming to a community near you — social grants as an electoral issue/weapon

Coming to a community near you — social grants as an electoral issue/weapon
Illustrative image | (Photos: Ziyanda Dube | Gallo Images / Misha Jordaan | Rawpixel) sassa

Come this year’s election, social grants and a basic income grant are likely to be a major point of contention, despite the ANC, probably wisely, refraining from using the issue on the campaign trail in the past. The lived, increasingly uncomfortable and fearful experience of so many people within the current political environment may make this momentum impossible to avoid.

At least three major dynamics around social grants now appear to be close to intertwining in complex ways.

First, the need of millions of people for help is leading to more pressure than ever for a basic income grant (BIG).

Second, the ANC is under unprecedented strain ahead of the elections.

Third, with a slowing economy, there are fears the government will be unable to pay for an increase in social grants.

Two weeks ago, ANC leader President Cyril Ramaphosa suggested that if the ANC were voted out of power, social grants and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) would be in danger

It is a measure of the power of social grants as a political issue that so many opposition parties responded so quickly.

The DA published a statement reiterating its support for social grants, while other parties, including ActionSA, castigated Ramaphosa for making this statement.

The importance of social grants in our society cannot be overstated.

It is clear that without this crucial intervention, many children (and adults) would be in even more dire circumstances than they are now.

Social grants – a real, good story to tell

Social grants reduce inequality. They bind us together as a society. Taking from the rich and giving to the poor through accepted and peaceful means is one of the most important functions of government. By and large, the ANC government achieved this.

It is for these reasons that most of SA’s mainstream political parties support social grants.

One of the strange aspects of this is that while grants play such an important role, the ANC has been relatively coy about using them as a campaigning tool, which is why Ramaphosa’s comments came as such a shock.

There are good reasons the ANC has been loath to make grants an electoral issue.

social grants

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

If people felt their grants were threatened or could be cut off, there would be serious consequences.

Thus the ANC, as the party in power, is very wary of making this a political issue.

The other, more cynical reason, is that for any promise of a social grant that a governing party makes, an opposition party can simply offer more. They have nothing to lose by doing so.

As a result, it may be a political mistake for the ANC to use grants as a campaigning issue — and contrast its own, sometimes flawed, performance against the theoretical purity and abundance offered by its competitors.

While all these factors need to be considered, it is important to note that many academic studies have found virtually no link between social grants and voter behaviour.

One such paper, published before the pandemic in 2019 by Professor Jeremy Seekings, sums up the findings in its abstract thus:

“Receipt of a grant does not seem to increase the likelihood of voting for the incumbent party, and a critical attitude towards grants does not seem to reduce the likelihood of voting for the incumbent party. Grants might be paid to many South Africans, but they do not seem as important as enduring loyalties to the incumbent party or assessments of its overall performance.”

This confirms research by academics and groups like the Black Sash, which found that many South Africans understand a social grant is a right that cannot just be removed when a new political party comes into power.

While it would be politically irrational to expand social grants at this point or to make doing so a campaigning issue, the ANC may have no choice. The pressure on the ANC and on the government to introduce a formal BIG has been growing for some time. A well-organised group of researchers and economists, backed up by factual findings of the importance of the Social Relief of Distress grant in people’s lives, has run a powerful campaign for a BIG to be introduced.

At the same time, there is now more evidence of the impact of hunger in South Africa.

The fact that at least one mother felt she had no other option but to kill her starving children and herself is just one example.

There are many other examples of how deep this problem runs.

Do the maths, stupid — cost of hunger is far greater than the cost of solving it

Pressure on ANC

Faced with this kind of evidence and intense pressure at the polls, some in the ANC may argue strongly that it should announce its intention to introduce a BIG. The obvious moment to do this would be at its election manifesto launch in Durban next month.

Of course, it is not certain that this would change the outcome of the election. So deep is the cynicism among so many voters, that many would claim the ANC has no intention of following through.

The fact that the party has been discussing this issue for so many years and has still not instituted it may well be used as a justification for this view.

There would be other consequences of such a decision.

Minister of Finance Enoch Godongwana has warned many times of SA’s dire fiscal position, as have his predecessors.

If the ANC were to make such an announcement, ratings agencies, investors and others could see this as a sign that the party is not committed to prudent fiscal management.

They might believe the ANC would be throwing caution to the wind in exchange for votes. The result of this would be that fewer institutions would lend us money, at a time when Eskom and Transnet are in dire need of financial support.

And it is not clear that the government can afford a basic income grant. For years there have been public concerns about a BIG, often claimed to be the tension between a shrinking number of high-net-worth individuals paying taxes and a growing number of people receiving social grants.

While those who propose a BIG will argue the government can afford it and those who oppose it will argue the government cannot, most beneficiaries of the grant would spend it on consumption — mostly of food and other necessities. This is at a time when SA needs to spend much more on investment in infrastructure to grow the economy.

Still, when things get dire, the solutions become desperate.  Social grants appear to be too powerful a tool to leave alone. The “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” political box containing social grants issues is likely to be smashed open in the coming months. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Andre Swart says:

    When poverty grows it’s because it gets rewarded.

    Same as crime … when crime pays, it will grow!

    A country that rewards innovation, entrepreneurship, competition and honest hard work will always thrive!

    No self respecting government can take pride in allocating grants to 40% of the population!

    It’s always been a disgrace for a healthy mature citizen to live off welfare derived from the ‘sweat’ of the neighbour … since Biblical times.

    In Germany, the ‘poor’ migrants receive debit cards with which only essential items can be purchased at specific shops, located in a specific area.

    The German debit cards have been introduced to stop the abuse of collecting multiple grants from various sources and then ‘sending the money home’!
    And also to prevent the ‘poor’ from spending the grants on alcohol and drugs, as they could do with CASH!

    What gets rewarded, grows!

    It’s because the ANC has been rewarding poverty, unemployment, homelessness, teenage pregnancies, HIV infecttion etcetera … it has grown to the extend that it’s out of controll and resulted in a failed state.

    Other African governments don’t reward ‘uselessness’ and destructive behaviour … like the SA regime. That’s the reason for the development progress in the neighbouring states while SA is falling apart.

    Reward constructive behaviour and it will grow!

  • Ben Harper says:

    This is nothing new and is typical anc electioneering. Every general election they use race hate as a tool as well as threatening the people their grants will be taken away if they do not vote anc.

  • Heinrich Holt says:

    If it was not for the continuous eating and stealing by the ANC cadres, there would have been more than enough for a basic income grant.

  • Quentin du Plooy says:

    “The “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” political box containing social grants issues is likely to be smashed open in the coming months.” How well you phrase matters Stephen..

  • Derek Jones says:

    This issue of grants continuing has been used for years as an election tool by the ANC in rural areas in the Eastern Cape. We know that for a fact. By Ramaphosa quietly mentioning it, the threat has actually already been made and will not have gone unnoticed.

  • Confused Citizen says:

    “This is at a time when SA needs to spend much more on investment in infrastructure to grow the economy.”
    So change your stifling labour laws and threats of EWC and businesses will start to invest in infrastructure. Keep the status quo (or worse) and those fists full of money will remain closed.

  • James Francis says:

    The ANC wants to replace our institutional democracy with an oligarchy (as does the EFF). Keeping people poor and desperate fits that play. SA could become the next Angola if this trajectory continues. How else do you explain that we can take other countries to court but not prosecute the most obvious of state capture crooks? Because those crooks are useful to the ANC’s ultimate goal: a new kingdom ruled by the greedy.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    ‘ Findings in its Abstract’……quite!

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    How we are suppose to finance this along with the NHI, no one can actually answer. And it’s been pretty much proven that we will not be able to finance either at this point without major changes how the ANC steals, err I mean governs. It’s a pity that this article makes it sound like we can actually afford this folly sustainably. No where in the world do so few tax payers support so many grant recipients, fancy unproven money tree theories are being pushed along with huuuuge tax hikes as solutions. And its not only the high net worth individuals impacted, it is an ever shrinking middleclass, so important to finance social spending, that is impacted heavily. Of course those that have little to lose will vote for social grants no matter the consequences to the country. Clearly we need some other solution and it has to begin with the economy.

  • John Patson says:

    Grants, especially old age pensions, have had more impact on the lives of people than anything else the government has done since 1992.
    But they are fragile — if the government cannot run visa applications for several thousand tourists wanting to stay six months instead of three, what hope for a system counting tens of millions?
    And which depend on institutions that are broken, like the post office?
    Of course the ANC politicians will use them in an election, and will probably be believed when it says no ANC, no grant — people remember family histories from before then, when there was no ANC and no grants.
    ANC risks sitting on top of a pile of ruins, unless it treats the grants system it created with more respect. If it breaks, it is unlikely to be repaired.

    • Bob Dubery says:

      The problem with the Visa extension is not one of inability, it is the result of an instruction given for reasons that are not clear (my bet would be part of a parcel of measures showing that Government are going to get tough on foreigners – and that is a hot election ticket).

      Quantitity is not really the issue. Paying of millions of grants is largely computerised, and millions do get their grant every month.

  • Con Tester says:

    As others have already pointed out, the ANC—unofficially, of course—has not been backwards about spreading the lie that people’s social grants will be taken away, should the ANC lose power. Thus, this article’s interpretation regarding the ostensible quandary that the “hot button” issue of SGs and the BIG puts the ANC in, is somewhat naïve. The ANC has one single overriding priority, namely to stay in power with a sufficient margin. Every other consideration is secondary, even tangential. Morality, correctness, and consequences be damned, there simply is no subterfuge, ploy, scam, propaganda, lie, swindle, or ruse too debauched that it will not be countenanced. And the reason for this willingness to cheat and deceive and BS is purely pragmatic: The ruling class will remain looked after and well kept right up to the point of SA’s economic collapse, and very likely even beyond. In short, the ANC’s depravity, driven solely by individual greed and avarice, is fathomless, and to probe for any other motives is a total waste of time and ink.

  • Louise Roderick says:

    What happens when the govt runs out of money as is likely to happen soon. If grants are affected this country will see bloodshed like never before.

    • James Francis says:

      I doubt there will be bloodshed. People will accept the desperation as they have for years now, the ANC and its puppets will continue to promote false narratives and a sense of fear. And when the people finally wake up, they’ll have lost their freedoms. The minority of revolutions are bloody. The majority are killed before they can even start.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    How we are suppose to finance this along with the NHI, no one can actually answer. And it’s been pretty much proven that we will not be able to finance either at this point without major changes how the ANC steals, err I mean governs. It’s a pity that this article makes it sound like we can actually afford this folly sustainably. No where in the world do so few tax payers support so many grant recipients, fancy unproven money tree theories are being pushed along with huuuuge tax hikes as solutions. And its not only the high net worth individuals impacted, it is an ever shrinking middleclass, so important to finance social spending, that is impacted heavily. Of course those that have little to lose will vote for social grants no matter the consequences to the country. Clearly we need some other solution and it has to begin with the economy .

  • Ian Schofield Schofield says:

    As far as I am aware, rural people regard the ANC as the government. They fail to see that the ANC is NOT the government. Therefore, if the opposition parties cannot persuade those voters of the difference, then those voters will vote for the ANC again. &$#@?!;:&

  • Johan Buys says:

    People might recall that one of former prisoner zuma’s last acts was to announce free university. That is the floater he left in his (fire) pool for us.

    I shudder to think what floaters 2024 will leave us with.

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