Sassa clarifies demise of much-needed food parcels
Many South Africans live on social grants, with no other additional sources of income. When food parcels were introduced at the outset of the lockdown necessitated by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was a relief to many who are not able to put food on the table beyond what the monthly government grants can afford them.
In a shocking decision taken seemingly without much thought, the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) decided to half the delivery of this very lifeline, the food parcels.
For those South Africans who have since been denied access to the food, the next step is to queue for the R350 relief grant, which they are never guaranteed as post offices often run out of funds, if their systems are not offline – the oft-quoted reason.
Don Makatile put questions to Sassa spokesperson Paseka Letsatsi to get to the bottom of the suspension of the food parcels.
Don Makatile (DM): What was the main reason for the food parcel tender to be cancelled or put on hold in the middle of an evaluation process?
Paseka Letsatsi (PL): Sassa has exercised its right to cancel the tender for the process to identify and appoint service providers for the provision of food parcels, as the business requirement has changed. Food parcels have been one method (and not the only) of providing temporary relief to citizens who experience a crisis situation. The social relief programme is administered in terms of the Social Assistance Act, 2004, which makes provision for the assistance to be provided through financial or non-financial means.
Lessons from the pandemic, where the provision of food parcels was fraught with challenges, not the least of which is the lack of dignity for our citizens who queued to collect food parcels, the fact that they can exercise no preference when it comes to what food they are given, as well as the administrative costs of food parcels, indicated to Sassa that a different way of providing support to distressed families was needed.
For this reason, and the fact that there are alternatives which may not have been viable some years ago, led Sassa to cancel the 2020 tender.
It should be noted that the cancellation was done before any supplier submitted any proposal.
The cancellation was done in line with National Treasury prescripts and supported by National Treasury.
It must be clearly understood that cancelling a tender does not mean that the programme is cancelled. The provision of social relief of distress (SRD) is an ongoing programme, provided for in the Social Assistance Act.
In fact, the current provision of the temporary relief grant of R350 to unemployed citizens, is provided in terms of the SRD framework.
To make an assumption that no SRD is being provided because there are no service providers for the provision of food parcels is completely incorrect and inaccurate.
It should also be noted that Sassa is not the only organisation that responds to crisis situations. The national and provincial Departments of Social Development all play a role in supporting citizens in crisis situations.
DM: Was there any change made in the Social Assistance Act? Legislation allows Sassa to provide financial and non-financial aid to persons with limited means who are experiencing undue hardship.
Why is Sassa deviating from the legislation which governs its operations? Was there any consultation with relevant stakeholders regarding any deviations made on the legislation, especially with the non-provisioning of food parcels?
PL: There have been no changes made to the Social Assistance Act, and there is no deviation from the Act. Nowhere in the Act does it refer to the provision of food parcels. The Act makes reference to the provision of SRD under certain circumstances, to citizens who meet the qualifying criteria.
DM: Was there any corrupt activity or administrative errors in relation to the food parcel tender?
PL: The cancellation of the tender was as a result of changed business requirements, and the need to ensure that our clients are served with dignity. There was no corruption or fraud involved which prompted this decision.
DM: What are you offering people waiting for their grants to be finalised? Food parcels used to assist such applicants in case of administrative delays.
PL: As explained, food parcels are not the only way in which deserving citizens are assisted.
The SRD programme provides for support through financial and non-financial means. Sassa has always been in a position to provide SRD in the form of vouchers or even cash in certain instances.
The introduction of the relief grant of R350 is part of the social relief programme, and through this, more than six million people are being supported through a direct cash grant.
Social grant applicants being subjected to extended administrative delays is no longer a major challenge. Sassa has improved its business processes such that more than 95% of all applications are processed within a period of less than 10 days, with the vast majority being processed and finalised within a single day.
DM: Lapsed Temporary Disability Grant recipients used to receive food parcels while waiting for Doctors’ assessment reports. What are you issuing them with as a form of relief?
PL: This is not relevant under the current environment, where all temporary disability grants have been kept in payment during this period of the disaster, in order to minimise the impact of the lockdown on citizens.
These measures have resulted in more than 200 000 temporary disability grant beneficiaries continuing to be supported through the monthly grant payment for the period from February to December 2020.
The reason to include those whose grants should have lapsed in February and March, despite this being before the hard lockdown announced to contain the spread of the virus was in acknowledgement of the challenges they had in getting appointments for medical assessments before lockdown.
The Minister of Social Development thus made sure that any hardship which would have been faced by these clients as a result of the lockdown was mitigated, and they have continued to receive their grants throughout the disaster.
DM: A lot of the R350 Covid-19 beneficiaries are battling to receive their approved benefits because the system has been failing for some time now. What measures have you put in place to correct that?
PL: The system implemented by Sassa has, within a very short space of time, been able to receive, process and pay more than six million applicants, who were not supported through any other government programme. By the end of October, more than 98% of all approved applicants had been paid for all the months they qualified for.
It is accepted that there have been challenges in the approved applicants actually accessing their funds. This is because more than four million approved applicants are being paid through the Post Office, which does not have the infrastructure to cope with these numbers on a daily basis.
All applicants for the relief grant were requested to provide banking details through which they could be paid. Many who do have bank accounts chose not to provide this information. The next payment option was to pay approved applicants through mobile money, which would be sent to their cellphones. This was not as successful as initially planned, as the majority of the cellphones used by applicants are not Rica’d in their name.
Sassa could not send money to a cellphone, which could not be positively linked to the applicant, as there would then be no way of confirming that the correct applicant actually received the funds. Given the above challenges with the payment channels, the default option was to utilise the Post Office infrastructure.
The reality of the situation, where each of these approved applicants has to go physically to the post office each month to collect the grant, has certainly put a strain on the Post Office, which also still continues to serve its other customers.
DM: Is Sassa still going to assist needy people during disasters, especially with benefits outlined in the recently revised SRD Policy?
PL: Sassa will continue to fulfil its mandate as outlined in the Social Assistance Act, 2004.
DM: SRD has a few categories; Food Parcels, School Uniform, Food Voucher, Disaster Management and Zero Hunger. Are you able to verify this for me?
PL: The social relief of distress programme has, for administrative purposes, been categorised into various categories. However, all these fall under a single programme of social relief of distress, and are funded from the single allocation provided through the budget process.
There is no legislative distinction whatsoever in this programme – everything is considered to be social relief of distress.
DM: On November 5, 2020, the EFF handed over a memorandum to the chief executive of Sassa, which she accepted. Can you fill me in on the contents of the memorandum?
PL: It is public knowledge that the chief executive accepted the memorandum from EFF. It should also be understood that the memorandum contained demands – also publicly reported – for issues which Sassa cannot respond to, as it is not our competency. For example, the continuation of the relief grant of R350 beyond January 2021. This extension was announced by the president, who also made it clear in his most recent address to the nation, that there are no funds to continue this relief measure beyond January.
Similarly, the demand for the grant amount to be increased is not within Sassa’s competence to address.
A very cordial meeting was held with members of the EFF on November 12 in which a number of issues were clarified.
This included clarifying the process for the receipt and validation of applications for the relief grant as well as the need to validate every application every month. This is to ensure that the grant is only paid to those who qualify for this support.