FEATURE: South Africa’s grant system has a missing middle problem

Despite South Africa’s constitution enshrining that every citizen possesses the right to access social security – a large demographic has been excluded from the social grant system.

While it may appear inconceivable to subsist on a grant of a mere R350 per month, this harsh reality befalls millions of South Africans, who find themselves teetering precariously below the food poverty line, trapped in a crippling dependency on social grants.

Wits Vuvuzela delved into the lives of five South Africans, confronting the stark reality of surviving on that R350 per month. When questioned about how their families manage on such an allowance, a resounding “We don’t!’ echoed around the room. Donavan Du Pelsen (53) lamented, “R11 a day! It works out to R11 a day!” Another recipient chimed in, “A loaf of bread is R12!”

Social security is firmly embedded in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.

Section 27(1)(c) of Act 108 of 1996 stipulates that every South African has the right to access social security, which includes appropriate social assistance for those unable to support themselves and their dependents.

Yet, in a country with a 32.6% unemployment rate, millions of citizens have been excluded from receiving this core socioeconomic right, resulting in 18.3 million South Africans between the ages of 18-59 living below the food poverty line.

The quarterly labour force statistics published by Statistics South Africa for Q2: 2023.
Infographic: Terri-Ann Brouwers

Prior to 2020, when the Social Relief of Distress Grant was implemented in response to the covid-19 pandemic, unemployed and able-bodied South Africans between the ages of 18-59 were completely excluded from the social grant system.

The grants which exist in South Africa include the older person’s grant, child support grant, grant in aid, care dependency grant, foster child grant, disability grant and war veterans grant.

According to a study conducted by UNICEF one of the common misconceptions held by policymakers, the media, and stakeholders in general, is that providing social assistance to citizens between the ages of 18-59 will lead to long-term dependency. Those who hold this view think such social assistance will disincentivise active job seekers and promote laziness.

This kind of thinking imagines that social grants should exclusively be allocated to the ‘deserving poor’ while unemployed people of working age are simply not trying hard enough to fight their circumstances.

Social Relief of Distress Grant (SRD)

Implemented to help the economically vulnerable South Africans during the pandemic, the SRD grant provided a monthly stipend of R350 afforded to recipients. In the 2023 budget speech finance minister, Enoch Godongwana stated that the grant would be extended until 31 March 2024. Although it was a much welcomed extension, the implementation has less than smooth.  

On 27 July 2023, the Pay The Grants campaign and the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) sued the government over the unfair exclusion of millions of people from the SRD grant. They also included concerns about “the real terms reduction of the value of the grant.” They stated that while all social grants have increased over time, the SRD grant has remained the same since its implementation in 2020. “Given headline inflation over 6%, the value of the grant has decreased to R294 in real terms. Inflation in the price of food is even higher than headline inflation, having reached over 11%,” read the court documents.

“We would rather have jobs than the R350!”

– Euradiece raiters

Commenting on the exclusion of social grants for people between the ages of 18-59, Pay The Grants chairperson, Elizabeth Raiters, who is also a recipient of the SRD Grant said: “We are not lazy to work. If you [are] over 35 it’s a big struggle to find a job because of your age. So, what happens to us after 35? There’s no grant to support us, we [are] not lazy to work, we are looking for jobs.” Raiters sister, Euradiece Raiters, who is also a recipient of the SRD grant echoed the sentiment, “We would rather have jobs than the R350!”

“There is totally no grant that covers those people, until you get old age (older person’s grant), so for all those years how must you survive?” said Raiters.

Charmaine Martin, another grant recipient and mother, was forced to quit her job when her husband developed a chronic disease which left him dependent on two oxygen tanks and unable to stay home alone. “I have a chronic patient, a daughter that’s 14, no income, we’re waiting for a grant that may never arrive, so in your mind how do you think we’re surviving now at this moment?”

She continued: “Tomorrow, he needs to go to hospital, I don’t have money for him to go to hospital for his appointment.” Martin is receiving a grant of R500 for her daughter, “She’s 14, how much is toiletries? R500 is for toiletries. So where does she eat? Where is she getting clothing from?”

Feeling despondent and out of options Martin said: “I’m at a point now where I want to send my husband to a place where they can help him with his illness, his lungs and everything, and me and my child can go to the shelter and live there… At least at the shelter, we will be able to eat breakfast, lunch and supper.”

Martin is constantly managing her hunger, “I don’t eat [for] like four to five days. I’ll rather buy a grandpa and that will fill me and boost me for the day ahead,” she said.

Valentia Mahlaela (22), an honours in physiology student at Wits University, was a recipient of the SRD grant in 2020 and said she was only able to use the R350 for toiletries. “I used it as my allowance, especially toiletries,” she continues, adding that “I was never granted NSFAS so it helped my folks [parents] a lot.”

Universal Basic Income Grant

Pay The Grants has been campaigning for the government to implement a Universal Basic Income Grant (UBIG) of a minimum of R1500. According to Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice& Dignity Group household affordability index, the average cost of a household food basket is R5124,31.

Commenting on the need for the UBIG to be implemented Pay The Grants said, “Debts are skyrocketing and so is child malnutrition. Rising unemployment is a structural feature of the system, currently 35% overall and 70% for youth without any signs of improvement.”

The organization says that UBIG is a way to restore the basic dignity and survival of most of the country.

  • Universal Basic Income Grant

An infographic outlining the premise of a universal basic income grant. Infographic: Terri-Ann Brouwers

Although deeply embedded in our constitution, it is clear that a significant portion of South Africans have been left behind when it comes to accessing social grants. One would think that the mother in the Eastern Cape who killed herself and her three daughters due to the extreme poverty they endured, would be a cautionary tale to the government to not only increase the grant amount but also make it more accessible to people of working age. However, this has not been the case. The question stands – how many more tragedies must occur before all South Africans’ constitutional rights are met?

FEATURED IMAGE: South Africa is confronted with a striking dependence on social grants, yet millions have been left out of the social security system. Photo: Terri-Ann Brouwers

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National minimum wage not enough to reduce inequality and poverty

WARMING UP: Speakers, Ayabonga Cawe and Jane Barrett share a quick chat about youth unemployment ahead of their discussion at the dialogue held at the Origins Centre on Tuesday, July 22. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

WARMING UP: Speakers Ayabonga Cawe and Jane Barrett share a quick chat about youth unemployment ahead of their discussion at the dialogue held at the Origins Centre on Tuesday, July 22. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

 

A national minimum wage will not make a difference in inequality and poverty in South Africa, according to Ayabonga Cawe. Cawe was speaking at a policy dialogue hosted by Young Economists for Africa last night at the Wits  Origins Centre which focused on the need for a national minimum wage policy.

A “national minimum wage should be accompanied with other social protection measures,” explained the Rethink Africa chairperson. These include a social wage subsidised by government to provide free housing, free health care and free education. These measures would then affect savings, investments and consumption.

Asset transfers are another option through the restoration of the ownership of land, the economy and access to markets in the economy for the previously disadvantaged.

“People can’t build (their) lives without assets,” Cawe said.

“People are employed but they are still caught in a poverty trap”

He also said that the national minimum wage will never be effective unless backlogs in development are dealt with and productivity is increased. He stressed that people need an incentive, possibly even a stake in profits, to be productive.

Despite arguments that a national minimum wage would give the country a bad image and may deter investments, Cawe defended the proposal. “People are employed but they are still caught in a poverty trap”. A national minimum wage will allow for social reproduction he said.

Jane Barrett, policy research officer at the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union also supported the proposed national mimumum wage and told Wits Vuvuzela, it is necessary “to bring simplicity and regularity to the regulation of wages at the bottom.”

According to Barrett, a national minimum wage is more effective in reducing inequality, than reducing the high pay for executives.

Taku Fundira, senior researcher at Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute, suggested that “social protection policies should be strengthened.”

He told Wits Vuvuzela that South Africans should consider a basic income grant as an option.

In South Africa there is an “unemployed generation aged between 18 and 59” that will never receive a certain or reasonable income until the age of retirement, when they would qualify for a pension grant. He explained that a minimum wage could absorb unemployment.

Fundira also encouraged good infrastructure, a powerful labour force and a flawless trade flow to attract investment. “This is a redistribution policy, we take away from business to empower lower income earners. The policy should be clear and transparent and enforceable.”

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