One payslip away from poverty
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Cape Town - Two decades ago, the emergence of mass social grant recipients in South Africa could be described as shocking in a democratic country committed to the implementation of a Reconstruction and Development Programme.
The image of individuals queueing at their local paypoint for a social grant has not only since been normalised, it has spread. This reality hit home again when President Cyril Ramaphosa made the welcome announcement on July 25 that the R350 Social Relief of Distress Grant (SRD), introduced in May last year, would be reinstated until March next year.
Processing payments to nearly 6.5 million monthly SRD recipients since May last year has exposed the boasts by the elite in our society about the resilience of South Africa’s economy for the thinly veiled lie that it is. Yes, last year the country’s unemployment increased sharply; and Statistics SA found that the employment rate in the first quarter of last year was 32.6%. Youth unemployment in some municipalities was hovering above 70%.
But this all looks less fantastic when you dig a little deeper into the figures. Almost three million SRD recipients are on zero-hours contracts, which means there’s no guarantee that the individuals who comprise those stats are the same from one day to the next. This does not simply mean the number of recipients has grown in recent years – Statistics SA indicates that about 18 million South Africans vulnerable to poverty or in need of state support received social grants, relief assistance or social relief paid by the government as of 2019, compared to just over 14 million in 2010 – but also that the categories of recipients have also been expanded in response to growing need.
It is not the large numbers that should concern us, as the constitution entitles everyone unable to provide for themselves to the right of access to social security. Indeed, organisations such as the Black Sash have courageously advocated for inclusive eligibility requirements and a progressive budget allocation in order to widen the social security net.
The social security system has been ridden with dysfunction since its inception. Long waiting times between initial claims and first payments have driven many people into hunger, causing child malnutrition and children dropping out of school. Compounding this is the draconian sanctioning system that has left many penniless over unavailability of application support documents to speed up enrolment for grants. Destitution is often the consequence.
This has gone largely unnoticed by the elite in our society over the years. The coronavirus pandemic has brought it into focus, and has revealed the true fragility of our social institutions. At the beginning of the crisis, the government darted back and forth like an exasperated shopper who kept misplacing their grocery list, announcing half-measure after half-measure in a desperate attempt to put a tourniquet on the country’s haemorrhaging economy.
It announced a package of emergency measures to compensate employers in the formal economy, then it remembered those in the informal economy weeks later. Then in the July announcement, after more than R16 billion was paid to approximately 6.5 million monthly R350 SRD recipients since May last year, it remembered to extend the R350 to unemployed caregivers who receive child support grants. The government also forgot about the millions of self-employed workers providing early childhood development services who were left with no means of income until, true to form, it remembered their existence months later. The confusion has overwhelmed the social grant system.
The pandemic has, all too predictably, made things worse. Almost one in eight adults in some municipalities have received support from a charity since the coronavirus crisis began in March last year, according to reports of several organisations active in distributing the proceeds from the Covid-19 Solidarity Fund. More than half of them had never expected to need such help before.
As job losses and high cost of living have left millions of people in need of social security assistance, everything from food banks, blanket banks, school uniform banks to hygiene product drop-off points have cropped up nationwide. When a breadwinner loses a job or dies, leaving a child-headed household, those in need get their shampoo and sanitary towels from a donation bin instead of a supermarket.
If you have chronic illness such as HIV and have been rejected for disability benefits even though they are physically weak to work, fruit and veg comes not from the supermarket but from food parcels distributed by organisations I am involved in, such as the Social Change Assistance Trust.
As hardship has increased in recent years, so have the ways we found to describe it. Time poverty. Fuel poverty. Food poverty. Period poverty. Such language deceptively suggests the problem is confined to one area, as if destitution doesn’t arise from systematic economic inequality, but from sanitary towels being too expensive. The truth is that millions of people simply do not have enough resources to live on.
People may be surprised to learn that over a dozen of my relatives are among those SRD claimants. They are in the tourism and hospitality industry and have even been fortunate enough to double their income in the past four years. You might ask: Why are they depending on the welfare system for support?
They are freelancers, which means, like many people working on precarious employment contracts, they cannot predict their income from one month to the next. Some months they do okay. During others, they worry about paying for basic expenses on time. Four years ago, their jobs may have afforded them more financial stability, but due to the high cost of living, an increase in the number of dependants in the extended family, they are living paycheque to paycheque.
The notion that lots of people are a missed payslip away from poverty has been a well-worn trope over the past two decades. Hopefully, with six million new R350 claimants, doubters will stop rolling their eyes when they hear it as the government has bowed to pressure to reinstate the SRD until March next year.
Nyembezi is a policy analyst and a human rights activist