The Covid grant needs to be R585, so all folks in South Africa can afford to eat

The Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant will be reinstated after its termination at the end of April 2021. The Black Sash has prepared a report on the implementation and impact of the grant. Archive photo: Masego Mafata

On Sunday, July 25, 2021, President Cyril Ramphosa announced that the R350 Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) Grant would be reinstated until March 2022.

The grant eligibility criteria have also been expanded to include unemployed carers who receive the Child Support Grant (CSG) on behalf of children. About 95% of CSG recipients are women and were excluded from the application criteria for the first round of the Covid-19 SRD scholarship.

The Black Sash has prepared a report on the implementation and impact of the Covid-19 SRD Grant. The report will be published publicly on Tuesday, July 27, 2021.

The Social Protection in a Time of Covid: Lessons for Basic Income Support report outlines some of the challenges faced by those who received (and did not receive) the R350 grant. It also illustrates the effect of the small monthly allowance in many households across South Africa.

The report strongly recommends that the Covid-19 SRD Grant become a permanent form of Basic Income Support (BIS) for people between the ages of 18 and 59 who have little to no income – and that this support is linked to the food poverty line . It recommends SASSA to improve the grant application system, appeal and payment processes, and develop a more effective communication strategy with applicants and beneficiaries.

When it was launched, the Covid-19 SRD Grant was an unprecedented moment in the history of social welfare in South Africa. As of May 2020, South Africans between the ages of 18 and 59 who were previously excluded from social allowances were entitled to R 350 per month. The scholarship was extended until the end of January 2021 and again until the end of April 2021.

By July 2020, around 5.6 million people had been approved for the grant at a cost of R4.8 billion per month. In addition, around 7 million people who received child support on behalf of children received a fixed amount of R500 per month between June and October 2020 – the Caregiver grant. With the addition of these two programs, social assistance in South Africa covered 71% of all households at peak times.

However, there were also critical exclusions from admission. The R350 grant excluded all 18 to 59 year olds who are already registered in a national database (SARS, UIF, NSFAS – even if the registration was out of date) or who have received any money in their bank account at all (even R50). Refugees and holders of special permits could only be entitled to the scholarship in September 2020 after a legal dispute. The R500 Caregiver Scholarship ended in October 2020 and has not been extended.

The application process

Many people, especially the elderly and people living in rural areas, did not have access to cell phones, airtime, and data to apply for their scholarships online. The permit was centrally managed by a GovChat team based in the national SASSA office. People whose applications were denied could appeal. At no time was there a fixed deadline for processing applications or objections.

The next hurdle was access to 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 a bank account or the possibility to access their SRD scholarship via an e-wallet system had to wait in very long lines at the South African post offices (SAPO) in the hope of getting their scholarship paid out. These people, who are among the poorest in the country, often faced great difficulties in finding a SAPO office that would pay out this type of grant – only to find the office was out of cash or the lines were so long that they didn’t even make it into the building.

When the scholars received their money, most found R350 too little to meet their monthly needs. During this time, most of the people we interviewed experienced dramatic changes in their diet, skipped meals, went to bed hungry, or just ate tea and bread. While the grant would have prevented starvation, it would not adequately address the severity of hunger experienced by the country’s poorest families.

Most challengingly, SASSA required all grant applicants not to have any money in their bank accounts. If a family member pays even R50 into the SRD grant recipient’s bank account, they would not be eligible for the Covid-19 SRD grant in the following month.

Lockdown has also disrupted and weakened people’s mutual networks. Many lost jobs and livelihoods, others were faced with job insecurity. The family members, neighbors and friends who had previously been able to help were no longer available because they too were faced with precariousness.

Creation of a platform for a basic income grant

In rural areas, the high-tech application system for the Covid-19 SRD scholarship was tough and unfamiliar for many people who could only get help from civil society organizations because many government agencies were largely closed during this time. The subsidy payments in the SAPO branches were often remote and far away from home.

Inequality between rural and urban areas is a long-standing problem inherited from colonialism and apartheid. It was perpetuated by the assumption that all could be accommodated equally in a single system. South Africa is a highly differentiated society; Any “universal” system exacerbates the challenges many families and communities face.

Despite these many challenges and hardships, the introduction of the Covid-19 SRD scholarship has accepted people who were previously excluded from state aid into the social security network and thus created a platform for a future basic income subsidy.

The results of our research show the urgent need to introduce permanent basic security. The application and distribution systems must be accessible and administered in such a way that people are not confronted with unnecessary, time-consuming and expensive bureaucratic hurdles without rural and urban differentiation. Obstacles such as disqualification in receiving income in bank accounts or exclusion due to outdated databases must be addressed urgently.

As an absolute minimum, the grant should meet the food poverty line, which is currently R585, so that everyone living in South Africa can afford something.

Theresa Edlmann works at Black Sash, Engenas Senona is an expert in social protection, Dr. Erin Torkelson is from Durham University and Dr. Wanga Zemba-Mkabile is from the South African Medical Research Council Research.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

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