Opinionista Alison Tilley 10 May 2018

Social grants: Let’s look at the crisis of beneficiaries who are losing out on R500m

The Department of Social Development conceded in a committee meeting in Parliament last week that they would not be spending R500-million in 2018/2019 which had been allocated to them for social grants. A majority party going into an election doesn’t often tolerate such delays in rolling out a surefire vote winner.

To be sure, the ongoing slow train wreck that is Sassa has taken up most of the public’s attention. But the current grants administered by Sassa are being paid, and there is every indication that they will be paid. It’s this R500-million in grant money that will never be paid to beneficiaries that is the real loss.

What on earth went wrong? And why was this amount set aside in the first place? Well, you won’t be surprised to hear there is court order involved – despite the pleas by the Chief Justice that Social Development stop making him do their work. How did the courts get dragged into this one? Inappropriate use of the foster care system is the culprit. It fell over under the weight of the HIV/AIDS crisis, which you may think we had put behind us.

When parents started dying of HIV, the children left behind were left with the grannies. They single handedly pulled us back from the brink of having to start orphanages in every community. The grannies needed financial support, and in the early 2000s the late Zola Skweyiya proposed the foster child grant as the solution. The wrinkle is that the foster care system is designed to deal with a small number of children at risk, where the child need to be taken away from their family, and put in state alternative care. In most of the cases where the parents died of HIV, the children were already living with their extended family, and did not need the state to intervene in their care arrangements.. But where needs must the devil drives – and we began the practice of putting children into foster care with family, simply so that they could get the increased grant amount.

Fast forward, and the foster care system, staggering under the weight of 500 000 children who need financial support while being cared for by their extended family, fell over. The social workers and childrens’ court magistrates needed to administer the correctly burdensome bureaucracy, designed for children in abusive situations and very vulnerable, ran out. Day zero for the foster care system was 11 May2011– the day 120 000 children were discovered to have lost their foster child grants because there weren’t enough social workers to process their two yearly court order extensions.

The Centre for Child Law took DSD to court to find a solution. The DSD, recognising they had a serious problem, asked to settle. The proposed settlement asked the court to allow DSD to ignore the law, and pay the grants anyway, despite the majority of children not having court orders sanctioning their placements and their grants. The court did so – surprisingly given that this is a likely violation of the principle of separation of powers. – and gave them three years to fix the problem. In a hint of the chaos to come in Sassa, the Department then basically ignored that deadline, and in December 2014 in a last minute urgent application to court, asked for another three years to fix the problem. This brought us to 31 December 2017. And – yes, you guessed it – they then announced that they still needed another 2 years, until 2019. The court, no doubt with its head in its hands, and prompted from some very muted murmurs of concern from civil society, put an order in place (by agreement with civil society) which required reports from the Department on progress made, and a result in 15 months. And, by the way, held the Minister’s delay in fixing the problem as unconstitutional unlawful and invalid.
So, with the clock ticking, where are we? The plan, reached after much handwringing, is essentially to create a half way grant – not as administratively burdenesome as the foster child grant, but paying out more than the child support grant. Legislation is needed to do that, and the Social Assistance Act Amendment Bill required to do that was only tabled on 13 April this year and almost a month later seems not to have yet piqued the Portfolio Committee of Social Development’s interest as there are no dates set yet for public hearings or deliberations  This bill contains provisions which give the Minister authority to make additional amounts available to certain categories of beneficiaries based on need. It wil enable her to pay a higher valued child support grant to relatives caring for orphans. But it isn’t law yet.

Meantime, the second amendment Bill required, the Children’s Act Amendment Bill, that will go to the heart of the solution required by the court order, making sure that foster care is only for kids at risk, is not in Parliament, and notin the recently tabled Annual Performance Plan of the Department for 2018/2019. The previous Minister’s delay in fixing the problem is already declared as unconstitutional unlawful and invalid – this Minister must be aware that a whole heap of trouble lies in wait if she doesn’t sort this out. The committee chair, Ms Nokuzola Capa, says is that the committee is comfortable that the issue is part of the Department’s plans. The committee, she says, have asked the department how far they are, and they have responded that they will give the committee a report in the next meeting.

Treasury has meantime had already put money aside to deal with paying these larger child support grants to relatives caring for orphans, which it anticipated coming on stream this year. But, the Department has conceded it cannot spend the R500 million in 2018/2019 which had been allocated to them. So back to Treasury the money goes.

The new Minster spoke to the Portfolio Committee twice in the last two weeks and managed to avoid mentioning what must be seen as an unmitigated political disaster. After a VAT increase, you would think that this option of getting more cash to actual voters – political gold, surely – would be one that she would grab with both hands. Instead, it is being quietly ignored. This may be because she herself isn’t a big fan of grants. In her one of her first pronouncements on her portfolio, she said in Committee that “We are moving away from a welfare state to a developmental state. If you look at economic growth and the grants, are we advancing the country and then we end up with a welfare state?”

Is all of this a sign that the Minister is backtracking on this hard- won solution to the foster care crisis? The weight of previous policy disasters continues to crush the foster care system – the surge in numbers of children whose parents died, most obviously. Then there are the children who need social workers, who don’t get them, at least in anything like the number they need. The social workers are frantically trying to keep renewing the grants for children who don’t actually need a social work intervention.

And the children really at risk of abuse or being abused, going to bed hungry or in pain in our angry, alcohol fuelled, gravely unequal society? Well, they won’t vote in 2019. But though the wheels of justice grind slow, they grind exceedingly sure, and the Minister will soon need to explain why the unconstitutional, unlawful and invalid actions of the department in relation to foster care have not been remedied. Her first progress report to the Court and the Centre for Child Law is due at the end of May – how will she explain the lack of progress in implementing a legal solution to the crisis with seven years already passed since the Court first ordered the Department to implement a solution? Tick tock. DM

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