By: Theresa Edlmann, Engenas Senona, Erin Torkelson and Wanga Zembe
On Sunday 25 July 2021 President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the R350 Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) Grant will be reinstated until March 2022.
The grant’s eligibility criteria have also been expanded to include unemployed Caregivers who receive the Child Support Grant (CSG) on behalf of children. About 95% of CSG recipients are women and were excluded in the application criteria for the initial round of the Covid-19 SRD grant.
The Black Sash has compiled a report into the implementation and impact of the Covid-19 SRD Grant. The report will be publicly launched on Tuesday, 27 July 2021.
The report, Social Protection in a Time of Covid: Lessons for Basic Income Support, outlines some of the challenges faced by those who did (and did not receive) the R350 grant. It also illustrates the impact the small monthly grant makes in many households across South Africa.
The report strongly recommends that the Covid-19 SRD Grant becomes a permanent form of Basic Income Support (BIS) for those aged between 18 and 59 who have little to no income – and that this support is linked to the food poverty line.
It recommends ways for SASSA to improve the grant’s application system, the appeals and payment processes, and to develop a more effective communication strategy with applicants and beneficiaries.
At its inception, the Covid-19 SRD Grant was an unprecedented moment in the history of social assistance in South Africa. From May 2020, South Africans between 18 and 59 who had previously been excluded from receiving social grants were eligible to receive R350 per month. The grant was extended to the end of January 2021 and again to the end of April 2021.
By July 2020 about 5.6 million people had been approved for the grant, at a cost of R4.8 billion per month. Additionally, about 7 million people who received Child Support Grants on behalf of children were given a fixed amount of R500 per month between June and October 2020 – the Caregiver grant. Through the addition of these two programmes, social assistance in South Africa covered 71% of all households at its peak.
However, there were critical eligibility exclusions as well. The R350 grant excluded any 18- to 59-year-olds already registered on a national database (SARS, UIF, NSFAS even if the registration was out of date) or who received any money at all into their bank account (even R50). Refugees and special permit holders only became eligible for the grant in September 2020 after litigation. The R500 Caregiver grant ended in October 2020 and was not renewed.
The application process
Many people, particularly the elderly and those in rural areas, did not have access to mobile phones, airtime and data to apply for their grants online. Approval was managed centrally by a GovChat team housed within the SASSA national office. People whose applications were rejected could appeal. At no stage was there a fixed time period for the processing of either applications or appeals.
The next hurdle was accessing the money once the grant was approved.
The payment system was not very efficient and recipients often waited months for their first payment or skipped months. People who did not have bank accounts or the capacity to access their SRD grant via an e-wallet system, were forced to wait in very long queues at South African Post Offices (SAPO) in the hope of being paid their grant.
These people, amongst the poorest in the country, often faced significant challenges getting to a SAPO branch that paid out this type of grant — only to find that the office had run out of cash or that the queues were so long they never even made it into the building.
When grantees received their money, most found R350 was too little to meet their monthly needs. During this period, most people we interviewed experienced dramatic changes to their diets, skipping meals, going to bed hungry, or eating only tea and bread. While the grant might have prevented starvation, it did not adequately address the levels of hunger experienced by the poorest families in the country.
It was particularly challenging that SASSA required all grant claimants to have zero money coming into their bank accounts. If a family member put even R50 into the SRD grant recipient’s bank account, that would exclude them from being eligible for the Covid-19 SRD grant the following month.
Lockdown also disrupted and weakened people’s reciprocity networks. Many lost jobs and livelihoods, others faced job insecurity. The family members, neighbours and friends who previously were able to help were no longer available to, because they too were faced with precarity.
Creating a platform for a Basic Income Grant
In rural areas, the highly technical application system for the Covid-19 SRD grant was hard and unfamiliar for many people, who could only get help from civil society organisations because many government offices were largely closed during this time. The grant payments at SAPO branches were often out of the way and far from where people live.
The inequity between rural and urban areas has been a longstanding problem inherited from colonialism and apartheid. It was perpetuated by the assumption that everyone could be accommodated equally by a single system. South Africa is a highly differentiated society; any “universal” system exacerbates the challenges that many families and communities face.
Despite these many challenges and hardships, the introduction of the Covid-19 SRD grant drew people who had previously been excluded from state assistance grants into the social protection network, creating a platform for a Basic Income Grant in the future.
The findings of our research show the urgent need to introduce permanent Basic Income Support. The application and distribution systems must be accessible and administered in a way that people are not met with unnecessary, time-consuming, and expensive bureaucratic hurdles with no rural and urban differentiation. Hurdles such as disqualification upon receiving income in bank accounts or exclusion due to outdated databases need to be urgently addressed.
At the barest minimum, the grant should meet the food poverty line, currently at R585, so all people living in South Africa can afford to eat.
Theresa Edlmann works at the Black Sash. Engenas Senona is a Social Protection Expert. Dr Erin Torkelson is with Durham University. Dr Wanga Zemba-Mkabile is with the South African Medical Research Council.
Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.