File picture: Babu

Johannesburg - Thousands of Gauteng’s most vulnerable children, the elderly and people with disabilities are facing a “calamity” because the provincial government has failed to pay overdue subsidies to the NGOs who care for them.

“The children at our three residential facilities are unsure whether they’ll have hot water tonight or food to eat tomorrow,” Gert Jonker, the chief executive of the Bethany House Trust in Krugersdorp, said on Friday.

Jonker explained that the NGOs were paid in three-month tranches by the Gauteng Department of Social Development, which covered operational costs and covers staff salaries.

But these were not paid for April because of delays in signing service level agreements (SLAs) between NGOs and the department.

This had been blamed on the recent crippling national strike by social workers.

“I’m not sure if we’ll have care workers to look after our children this weekend because they can’t get to work … This non-payment is a calamity for our staff and beneficiaries.

“The social welfare network that supports them is at risk of collapse. There are 125 children’s homes in the same position as we are caring for 5 000 children," he said.

During the five-week protest, striking state social workers had “locked children up and placed their lives at risk”, he said.

“The government brought those children to us because their own people left them, but they didn’t even pay us for the six weeks we looked after the children.

“Beneficiaries were held hostage in buildings, but there’s been no action against those social workers.

" All their salaries were paid with the increases they went on strike for but we have to beg, borrow and steal to keep up.

“That’s the real crisis. If we speak out we run the risk of being victimised by the government – we’re supposed to be partners in welfare services delivery but we’re treated like slaves.”

The department had pledged that all NGOs receiving government funding to render essential welfare services would be paid last week and that the funds would reflect in their bank accounts. But nothing had appeared thus far. “Although the department has indicated they’re doing manual payments, we’ve had no confirmation the payment has actually been effected," said Jonker.

“We can’t render services, pay our bills, get fuel to get our social workers to court or take our children to school."

Les Sanabria, the deputy chairperson of the Gauteng Social Services and Welfare Development Forum, said: “I’ve got a figure of 2500 organisations affected by this all over Gauteng. The department is saying it’s a technical glitch, but our people are suffering. Where is the state’s responsibility?”

In its response on Friday, the department said payments would start to be reflected in the accounts of NGOs from Tuesday.

It explained that following the strike, it had "expedited" the signing of agreements with the approved organisations. "Some are still being concluded with certain NGOs as it's based on the availability of board members."

It valued its partnership with non-profits and would "always strive to minimise any possible disruptions to the ability of the NGO sector to deliver the much needed services to the communities of Gauteng".

The department was ready to sign SLAs with the sector as early as March and had made alternative arrangements in venues outside the departmental offices "but strikers disrupted that process by tearing all the signed and concluded SLAs".

Provincial authorities, it said, had introduced new financial codes to be effective in the new financial year and could only be tested in April once the financial year had commenced.

"These capturing and testing of new financial codes in the payment system has led to the current glitches of releasing four instalments at once instead one instalment that is due in the first quarter. The department attempted to have its first payment run last week of April but it was not successful because of the aforementioned system glitches.

“If this isn’t remedied, the department will have to remove all our children and place them in government-run homes as we simply cannot carry on without the government funding, which we signed contracts for," said Jonker.

Ronelle Sartor, the director of the San Salvador home for intellectually and physically disabled women in Hyde Park, said non-profits had no financial reserves.

“Most non-profits literally live from hand to mouth so if your subsidy for the next three months doesn’t come in, it’s a disaster. It’s already a month overdue and we’re a month into the next quarter," she said.

In early April, Jonker said, a stakeholder meeting was held where the department promised all SLAs would be signed before April 15 and payments would be affected by the end of April. None of these two promises were realised either.”

The department said it was in negotiations with Bethany House "on the reimbursement of extra children cared for during the strike and those discussions will be concluded by end of May".

Saturday Star