Black Sash turns to Ramaphosa after water cannon blasts grant queue

Hundreds of people queueing outside the Sassa offices in Bellville were doused with water by police after they were told to observe social distance on January 15 2021.
Hundreds of people queueing outside the Sassa offices in Bellville were doused with water by police after they were told to observe social distance on January 15 2021.
Image: GroundUp/Mary-Anne Gontsana

The Black Sash has called for the intervention of President Cyril Ramaphosa after police turned a water cannon on social grant applicants queuing outside a SA Social Security Agency office in Cape Town on Friday.

The human rights organisation said the use of force — from a vehicle containing social development minister Lindiwe Zulu — showed a “shameful and shocking disregard for the human rights of vulnerable beneficiaries, many of whom are disabled and chronically ill”.

Before the water cannon was used to disperse a queue at the Bellville Sassa office — ostensibly to enforce social distancing — Zulu spoke to claimants from the vehicle's passenger seat, asking them to spread out.

Sassa offices nationwide have seen lengthy queues this week, with many people sleeping on the streets to keep their places, after the cancellation on December 31 of temporary disability grants.

In a statement, the Black Sash said the use of a water cannon to enforce social distancing followed Sassa's failure “to provide an adequate procedure for the reapplication of temporary disability grants including safe spaces, seating and crowd management for compliance protocols”.

It added: “Grant applicants and recipients at Bellville, many of whom are people living with disabilities, were forced to continue waiting while standing soaking wet on a rainy day.

“The police deploying the use of force in the presence of the minister of social development is a clear indication that the minister and Sassa have lost control of the current situation.”

The Black Sash said the queues were “entirely predictable, given Sassa’s severe capacity constraints and the premature decision to allow temporary disability grants to lapse”.

Nearly an hour after the crowd was doused by the water cannon, Zulu told journalists inside that Sassa “should have been able to plan better” for the grants which lapsed this month.

“This must never happen again. We take full responsibility,” said Zulu.

“Nobody would ever want to use water cannons just for the sake of it. The bottom line is that the situation was really getting out of hand and people were refusing to social distance and queue,” she said.

A queue outside the Sassa office in Gugulethu, Cape Town.
A queue outside the Sassa office in Gugulethu, Cape Town.
Image: GroundUp

Zulu said that the police had made the decision to use the water cannon.

Abeeda Radyn, 50, from Elsies River, was drenched. She said she had been outside the Sassa offices since about 11pm on Thursday.

Seated on a tiny camp chair, Radyn has arthritis. “All I did was put on my hoodie when they started spraying because unlike the others, I couldn’t just get up and run away,” she said.

This is the third week Radyn has returned to Sassa to try and renew her grant or get an appointment to return. “I need that grant because it puts the food on my table. It is what helps my children get through school,” said Radyn.

When Zulu arrived people queueing outside shouted: “Say something!”, “You only want to speak to the media”, “You don’t want to speak to us” and “We are hungry”.

Zulu was confronted by a man who told her that there wouldn’t be large crowds and congestion had the government further extended the grant.

Calling for Ramaphosa's intervention, the Black Sash said grant applicants faced the risk of exposure to Covid-19 while queuing, “with the added threat of police callously using force”.

It said: “The president must inform beneficiaries, and the nation, what will be done to ensure that non-violent means will be used to safely manage queues outside Sassa.

“At a national level, an intergovernmental task team must urgently be established, with representatives from civil society, to resolve this crisis.”

The Black Sash also repeated its demand that temporary disability grants that lapsed on December 31 be extended until March 31.

“Sassa simply cannot manage the thousands of medical assessments that can be expected by those seeking to reapply,” it said.

“Given the current economic crisis, exacerbated by Covid-19, Sassa should expect the crowds outside its offices to continue to grow.

“Today’s events signify a very disturbing moment in our democracy. People whose lives have been severely impacted by the ravages of Covid-19, and were seeking the support of the state to find the means to survive, were treated with violence and utter disrespect.

“The minister of social development did very little to intervene while she sat safely inside a police vehicle. Events of this nature have no place in a constitutional democracy.”

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