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Opposition MPs criticise termination of R350 grant — 'a lifeline for many'

Andisiwe Makinana Political correspondent
DA MP Bridget Masango says thousands of desperately poor people have no choice but to subject themselves to demeaning and inhumane treatment to get their grants. File photo.
DA MP Bridget Masango says thousands of desperately poor people have no choice but to subject themselves to demeaning and inhumane treatment to get their grants. File photo.
Image: South African Government via Twitter

Opposition parties have criticised the government for stopping the R350 social relief of distress grant which was introduced to address poverty at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown last year.

This as social development minister Lindiwe Zulu tabled her department's R205bn budget for the 2021/22 financial year on Tuesday.

She said the allocated budget was a reduction of R6.5bn from the initial allocation of the 2020/21 medium-term strategic framework, which will culminate into cumulative reduction of R38.5bn over the next three years.

The department has allocated R195.516bn — or 95% — of its annual budget towards the monthly payment of 18 million social grants to beneficiaries. The remaining 5% goes towards the implementation of all the department’s programmes, including the allocations towards the administration of the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) and the programmes of the National Development Agency, said Zulu.

The social assistance programme continues to be country's largest anti-poverty programme, paying more than 18 million grants every month.

For its administration, Sassa will receive R7.4bn to efficiently and effectively manage, administer and pay social assistance.

Zulu said to this end, during the current financial year, Sassa has committed its allocation towards reducing poverty, contributing to economic transformation through the empowerment of individuals, and contributing towards the creation of conditions wherein communities can be sustainable.

They will also work towards improving beneficiaries’ experiences with Sassa and enhancing Sassa's efficiencies. Zulu said key to Sassa's programmes will be its investment towards improving its grant application and payments system.

Some of the key interventions include implementing a digital transformation programme, business process re-engineering, implementing anti-fraud strategies and strengthening Sassa's capacity to deliver its mandate.

Zulu said the Covid-19 grant which came to an end last month benefited 6.5 million unemployed people who had no income.

She said the rapid assessment study that the department initiated on the implementation and utilisation of the Covid-19 social relief of distress grant monies was nearing completion.

“Preliminarily, we expect that these will be relevant for the discussions that we are having on the basic income grant (BIG) in that the study established that the implementation of the Covid-19 grant did play a major role in the reduction of hunger, poverty and inequalities across our country.”

The need to introduce the basic income grant has become an urgent consideration for the government. To this end, her department has developed a basic income grant discussion document that it has started to consultant on.

These consultations are targeted at developing the BIG financing mechanism for unemployed people aged 19-59. Meanwhile, the department continues contributing to a supplementary basic income grant process by Nedlac, she said.

Opposition MPs were critical of the government, with DA MP Bridget Masango saying that while they hear of 91% of grants paid, [media] reports and messages from civil society and the public tell a different story.

“We watch harrowing scenes of people stampeding post offices and Sassa offices from 5am, only to be told that only 45 people would be served on that day. This has been a daily reality for thousands who have no choice but to subject themselves to this demeaning and inhumane treatment just to put food on their tables,” she said.

Masango bemoaned decisions by Zulu's department and the National Treasury, including the reduction in the budget for the foster care grant, and not budgeting for the introduction of the child support grant top-up for orphans living with relatives — as planned to comply with legal requirements.

“These decisions are bizarre at best and morally indefensible at worst. They are punitive to the very children we are supposed to protect, and those who care for them. We demand that the Treasury amends this budget to address these challenges,” she said.

She said given the pressure to increase the value of the child support grant, it will be hard for the government to justify its failure to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and to explain the real decline in the value of the grant.

Masango said it was ludicrous for the government to pay monthly cash bonuses to civil servants while refusing to prioritise protecting the most vulnerable citizens during a pandemic. This was in reference to the six million R350 grant recipients.

The EFF's Laetitia Heloise Arries criticised the government's decision to end the R350 Covid-19 grant as a crime.

This money was the difference between going to bed hungry and a meal for millions of South Africans. Today, we stand here to make it explicitly clear that the only practical way forward for SA is the introduction of a permanent basic income grant for all who qualify. This is long overdue. This is humane,” she said.

She said the basic income grant would have to be introduced at R1,500 and not at R350.

The department of social development is the embodiment of the collapse of social services meant to be the last buffer for our poor people. This is made worse by the Treasury's austerity policy that is implemented without scientific guidance,” said Arries.

She described as shameful the queues at post offices and Sassa, saying people were being subjected to inhumane conditions to access services.

The IFP's Liezl van der Merwe called on Zulu to do more for the poor.

First, resolve the non-payment, late payment and subsidy cuts to NPOs and NGOs who provide vital services on behalf of the state. Stop playing with the lives of the vulnerable, finalise a budget allocation with the Treasury for the child support top up grant and for reinstating the R350 grant.”

Van der Merwe called on the government to implement food vouchers without delay.

The plans and funds we are debating today are a lifeline for millions of South Africans.

“[Grants] are the lifeline for many poor children surviving on a school meal alone, a lifeline to grandmothers providing for their families, a lifeline to many NGOs assisting the vulnerable,” she said.

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