South Africa will not have universal basic income grant this year, minister says

Social development minister Lindiwe Zulu.
Social development minister Lindiwe Zulu.

South Africa will not implement a universal basic income grant until at least March, Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu said in an interview on Friday, rolling back a pledge to have it ready by October.

Zulu unexpectedly announced the plan two weeks, reviving a policy that was the centrepiece of Nelson Mandela's government when apartheid fell in 1994.

Zulu told Reuters a draft policy would be ready at the end of the financial year, in March. In the meantime, she would seek support from cabinet colleagues.

"In cabinet, no one has come to me and said this is nonsense," she said. "We're having the conversation, but I still need support in implementation."

An emergency unemployment grant of 350 rand ($20.57), as well as top-ups to existing child and old age grants, were introduced earlier this year as South Africa entered a pandemic lockdown.

They are due to expire in October, but Zulu said it was unrealistic to expect a universal basic income grant by then.

No country pays out an unconditional universal basic income, according to the World Bank, but the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus has put the idea back on the table, even in fiscally conservative countries.

The United Nations says a temporary basic income for the world's poorest 2.7 billion people could help slow the spread of the virus.

Zulu's plan has been welcomed by unions and civil society, but the presidency and the treasury have yet to give explicit backing.

Guy Standing, professor of development studies at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and former adviser to the labour ministry, said Zulu was making "good noises" but needed cabinet support, especially from the finance ministry:

"Now's the opportunity for (finance minister Tito) Mboweni to go back to the man he was in the 1990s ... who has these transformative ideas in his mind. He can help Minister Zulu."

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