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Social Relief of Distress Grant: State chooses austerity over the welfare of millions


Courtney Hallink is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. She previously completed her master’s at the University of Cape Town. Her research explores the ideology of dependency in South Africa from a historical and contemporary perspective and traces how it has shaped the availability of social assistance for working-age adults.

The ANC government has said it cannot afford the continuation of the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) Grant. But the Constitution says the state must ‘within its available resources’ work to ‘progressively realise’ its duty to fulfil the constitutional right to social assistance. It is not a matter of financial ability but a matter of political will. The government continues to rely on loopholes and vague language to skirt its constitutional obligations.

The African National Congress (ANC) government has cut the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) Grant after 12 months of payments, leaving six million people without any form of cash assistance and with little warning.

In July 2020, Minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu stated that the government would consider introducing a Basic Income Grant following the end of the SRD Grant. A leaked ANC document stated that the proposed Basic Income Grant (BIG) would provide individuals aged 18-59 with R500 per month, R150 more than the SRD Grant.

The government extended the SRD Grant several times, with the last announcement about an extension in February 2021. Sassa received over nine million applications for the grant and issued just over six million grants each month.

It was expected that the SRD Grant would be extended again in April or that it would be replaced by the BIG. Yet 30 April came and neither announcements were made.

Section 27C of the Bill of Rights states that everyone has the right to “social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependents, appropriate social assistance”.

The right to social assistance is realised through the social grant system, which is available to the elderly, children (and their caregivers, primarily women) and individuals with disabilities. Individuals who are working-age have historically been excluded from the system. The exclusion of working-age “able-bodied” adults makes it clear that “ability” is defined as one’s physical ability to work, and does not consider one’s inability to find work due to South Africa’s unemployment crisis.  

This has been highlighted by the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Once there was a “legitimate” external reason as to why South Africans were unemployed, an unemployment grant was implemented. People who had been unemployed for years were now suddenly eligible for cash assistance. Covid-19 did not change the employment prospects for many of the unemployed, nor will the ending of lockdown.

Over the last several months, civil society organisations including Black Sash, #PayTheGrants Campaign, SECTION27, the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ), Amandla Mobi, and Budget Justice have been working hard to keep the extension of the SRD and the introduction of the basic income grant on the agenda and to demonstrate the widespread support the proposed grant has.

Protests were held around the country on Freedom Day.   

On 28 April, Black Sash and #PayTheGrants held a joint press conference on the BIG. The conference brought together Professor Thuli Madonsela, former public protector and one of the individuals who helped draft South Africa’s current Constitution, and Professor Vivienne Taylor, who chaired the government-appointed social protection committee in the early 2000s which proposed the basic income grant rejected by the ANC.

On 30 April, the last day of the SRD Grant, the organisation Amandla Mobi delivered a petition with 40,000 signatures to the Union Building in Pretoria. Less than a week later, the petition now has over 65,000 signatures.

The same day, the #PayTheGrants campaign, which has been endorsed by over 200 civil society organisations, tweeted pictures of grant recipients holding up flyers in support of the basic income grant at the Kliptown post office, the very same place the Congress of People came together to adopt the Kliptown Charter (commonly referred to as the Freedom Charter) in 1955. The photo of grant recipients in Kliptown is symbolic, not least because unemployment benefits were one of the many calls made in the Kliptown Charter almost 70 years ago. #PayTheGrants canvassed at post offices and Sassa offices across the country. But despite the calls from civil society, the government has remained quiet.   

The ANC government has said that it cannot afford the continuation of the grant. However, the IEJ published costing estimates and showed the ways in which it could be funded and implemented.

The ANC’s justification about affordability is strategic. The Constitution includes an important caveat, stating that the state must “within its available resources” work to “progressively realise” its duty to fulfil the constitutional right to social assistance. It is not a matter of financial ability but a matter of political will. The government continues to rely on loopholes and vague language to skirt its constitutional obligations.

The SRD Grant represented a potential watershed moment, not only for South Africa but the international movement for basic income. This failed moment highlights how much South Africa has deviated from the hopes of those who fought for the country’s liberation less than three decades ago.

The situation is worse than it was when the ANC government rejected the basic income grant proposed in 2002. Poverty and unemployment have increased and inequality continues to rise. South Africans are not ignorant of this. In 2019, for example, there was an average of 2.5 protests daily, most of which were centred on service delivery.

The ANC government must answer the calls from the #PayTheGrant campaign and the rest of civil society to extend the SRD Grant until it is able to implement the basic income grant. It must also extend the grant to caregivers and increase the amount to at least match the Food Poverty Line (R585 per month).

The South African government has once again chosen austerity over the protection of the lives of millions. It continues to defy its constitutional obligations and must be held accountable. DM


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  • While we urgently need a solution to this problem, a quick look at that pdf for financing shows that we are not there yet. The solution cannot be huge tax increases for an ever shrinking tax base that is already taxed amongst the highest in the world for the least amount of service delivery.

    • cont. especially the middle class, many of whom are already slipping into debt, even before Covid, is dwindling. Yet they count for most income tax, alot of employment etc. The answer must go beyond tax, and thexway we spend tax must be priority, before we can look at taking even more.

  • Before this can be achieved we need to clean up the criminality in govt and our communities. Politicians rob us blind. Regular people steal lightbulbs from street lights, vandalise infrastructure, etc which must then be repaired/replaced. After this there’s not enough money to go around.