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R350 social relief grant mired in challenges despite its benefits, says Black Sash

The Black Sash says although the social relief of distress grant was helpful in addressing hunger and poverty in SA during the coronavirus pandemic, the system of applying was mired in a number of challenges.
The Black Sash says although the social relief of distress grant was helpful in addressing hunger and poverty in SA during the coronavirus pandemic, the system of applying was mired in a number of challenges.
Image: South African Gov‏ via Twitter

Though the social relief of distress grant was helpful in addressing hunger and poverty in SA during the coronavirus pandemic, the system of applying was mired by a number of challenges, a report by the Black Sash revealed.

The report titled “Social Protection in a time of Covid-19: Lessons for a basic income grant” was launched on Tuesday.

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday announced the return of the R350 social relief of distress grant — known as the “Covid-19 grant” — which will remain in place until the end of March 2022. 

The Black Sash said it began monitoring the Covid-19 social relief grant application and distribution process with its partner organisations, including the Community Advice Office of SA (CAOSA) and Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT).

In its research, the Black Sash found that despite SA having 11 official languages, the online application systems were available in English only.

“For many of the people whom the system was meant to help, English is a second, third or fourth language.

“Across the country, people came to advice offices and community-based organisations for help simply because the messaging was incomprehensible. The SMSs were lengthy and complicated and people worried if they did not understand the nuances of the instruction, they would not get their grant.

“The Covid-19 SRD grant was helpful in a context of poverty and hunger. Beneficiaries were able to use the grants for their immediate needs, preventing them from falling into extreme poverty,” the report reads.

According to the Black Sash, despite about 6-million beneficiaries successfully accessing the Covid-19 social relief grant, others were excluded as the programme was mired in a number of challenges.

The challenges include:

  • The online system was inaccessible and exclusionary for those with no digital devices, internet access, and digital literacy;
  • Asylum seekers and special permit holders became eligible for the grant through the Scalabrini court order in June 2020. However, after the judgment, Sassa had to build a special digital platform to accommodate their identification numbers, and home Affairs had to verify their migrant status. These processes excluded them from receiving the Covid-19 SRD grant immediately. By the end of the 2020 this group had not received a single rand;
  • Almost 68% of Covid-19 social relief recipients were men. This was due to the high numbers of women (97% of 7.1-million), who received the child support grant, and qualified for a caregiver’s allowance instead;
  • The South African Post Office (Sapo) did not process cash payments efficiently. Branches ran out of cash, their technology often did not work, and long queues were not well-managed; and
  • People residing in rural and peri-urban areas encountered far greater challenges in accessing the grant than those living in urban areas.

In the report, the Black Sash contends that the grant was insufficient to alleviate the multiple hardships that individuals and households encountered daily, worsened by the pandemic.

“These include hunger, unemployment, poverty, depression, gender-based violence, inadequate access to water and electricity, and environmental crises such as extreme weather, drought and flooding.”

Researchers also found that applying for the grant on digital online platforms proved difficult for many applicants as there was lack of connectivity, limited or no access to  cellphones, computers, cellular networks, data and airtime.

These, the report says, made accessing the grant extremely challenging for many people in the poorest areas of the country.

“Capturing information on digital systems was challenging for people unfamiliar with keypads and devices. All digital systems were set up exclusively in English, making applying very challenging for people not proficient in that language.”

The research noted that payments made into bank accounts incurred bank charges, including withdrawal fees, diminishing the value of the grant.

The Black Sash made the following recommendations to help the application system improve:

  • All government databases must be up to date for them to be a reliable resource of verification;
  • Applicants and recipients must be able to access both digital and face-to-face services from Sassa;
  • All digital application platforms must be free, meaning that those eligible should not carry any data or airtime costs to apply;
  • Sassa must have a proper system in place for cash payments, which should include more options than the post bank. Sassa must beef up cash pay points, particularly in rural areas and peri-urban areas, where the National Payment System and Sapo have a limited footprint;
  • All distribution sites must have a regular, reliable and sufficient cash flow. They must also have sufficient staff to reduce long queues;
  • Recipients who receive their money through the banking system should not pay bank charges to withdraw their grants;
  • The grant cycle and payment dates must be explicit so beneficiaries know when they will be paid; and
  • Sassa must have an effective information, communication, recourse and appeals system in place with quick turnaround times.


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