Social security, which includes non-contributory social assistance and contributory social insurance, is a fundamental right and a necessary safeguard. As US President Franklin D Roosevelt said in his 1944 State of the Union address, “we have come to a clear realisation of the fact, however, that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men.”
In South Africa, social security, particularly tax-funded social assistance, offers stability and hope to citizens grappling with inequality and unemployment challenges. It is a constitutional obligation that represents a commitment to the well-being of all South Africans and emerges not only as a policy choice but as a moral imperative.
According to the latest General Household Survey by Stats SA, social grants are the primary source of income for roughly 25% of South African households. Moreover, they are also the second most crucial source of income for close to 50% of the population after salaries.
The arguments for social security are sound, but what happens when this very system is twisted?
In recent years, corruption and fraud have seeped into the very fabric of South Africa’s society. One merely needs to mention “capture” or “Zondo” to trigger a visceral response. This deviant culture has seeped through every facet of our society — and the repercussions are substantial.
On Monday 9 October 2023, it emerged that corruption had infiltrated the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa). In the last two years, 701 suspected fraud cases were investigated, involving an estimated 40 Sassa officials, which amounted to a potential loss of just over R50.5-million. The cases ranged from fraudulent collection of grant funds, disability grant applications based on falsified medical information, and the unlawful collection of child support grants.
Failures and access issues
In September, Postbank, which distributes social grants to more than 18.2 million beneficiaries, said it had to deploy cybersecurity technology to reinforce its systems and to prevent future fraudulent activities after R90-million of social grant money was looted over two months in 2021.
Earlier in the month, the board of Postbank was fired by Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Mondli Gungubele after a forensic investigation found that Postbank had maintained contracts with suppliers unlawfully, including the switch technology which enables grant payments, and an illegal R140-million contract paid to a software company.
Days before, a nationwide system failure affected payments to 600,000 old-age grant beneficiaries. To call this merely a glitch is a gross underestimation of the impact.
These instances of fraud, which could very well only scratch the surface, are particularly distressing when you consider that Sassa grants are essential to millions of poor South Africans. This subversion becomes a tool of exploitation, deepening inequalities, eroding trust, and crushing the very hope it was designed to foster.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Social grant payments are a mess – and the public needs answers from Sassa, Sapo and Postbank
How do we combat this? Importantly, we need to understand the root causes of fraud.
On the one hand, this comes from a sense of desperation. South Africa has been called the most unequal country in the world and has among the highest unemployment rates in the world. This has created an environment where vulnerable individuals often resort to fraudulent activities out of sheer necessity.
On the other hand, corruption emerges and persists against a backdrop of our history, an overreliance on extractive resources, poor governance frameworks and institutions, political factions, and the shaky economic context. Based on this, what is to be done?
Considering our socioeconomic context, it is apparent that we need to invest in quality education and appropriate skills training programmes to empower citizens and focus on job creation through joint initiatives with industry. Our social welfare programmes should also be designed with efficiency in mind.
As demonstrated above, however, this calls for more rigorous checks and balances in the tender process at a government level. There also need to be severe penalties for fraud that act as a deterrent. This requires a culture of transparency and accountability.
Ethical leadership within government institutions thus becomes paramount, particularly as we work towards rebuilding trust between the citizens and the state.
The shift towards cybersecurity frameworks is, of course, an important solution. Yet, we must also be mindful of the potential consequences. For instance, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Risks Report 2021 warned of the impact of cybersecurity failure, particularly on public services. In anticipation of these threats, governments and organisations alike must establish robust cybersecurity strategies to safeguard critical systems, protect data and ensure seamless service delivery.
As we continue to wade through a challenging economic context, social security has to continue to be a priority for us, and we must not forget that citizens and their well-being are at the heart of it.
Perhaps in this endeavour, it is helpful to remember the words of Noam Chomsky, who once said “social security is based on a principle. It’s based on the principle that you care about other people. You care whether the widow across town, a disabled widow, is going to be able to have food to eat.” DM