Tens of thousands of people struggling to receive the R350 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant regularly have taken the government to court, challenging regulations that “unlawfully and unconstitutionally” exclude the poor.
The joint lawsuit has been launched by the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ), #PayTheGrants movement and Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI).
Minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu and the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) have been cited as respondents in the case.
The SRD grant was implemented in March 2020 as a measure to support individuals adversely affected by the economic and social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
At the time about 10.9 million people received the grant.
But the number had now dwindled, according to executive director of IEJ, Gilad Isaacs.
“Fewer people have access to the grant today than was the case at its peak in March 2022. Research estimates at least 16 million people should be eligible for the SRD grant. Yet, in May 2023, while 14.4 million applied for the grant, only 8.4 million were approved, with 7.1 million people actually being paid," said Isaacs.
Over 93% of grant recipients spend their grant on food and the exclusion negatively affected the right to food.
Government estimates suggested that 18.3 million individuals aged 18 to 59 lived below the food poverty line in South Africa, without access to adequate nutrition.
Additionally, 20.4% of households experienced food insecurity, with 20.9% sending a member to beg for food, said Isaacs.
“The difference between those in need and the number of beneficiaries paid, in the context of worsening poverty and hunger, is a direct consequence of deliberate actions by the government to make it as difficult as possible to access the SRD grant.
“Apart from the SRD grant, there is no permanent social assistance available to able-bodied individuals aged 18 to 59 without income,” added Isaacs.
In April 2022, the government passed regulations which disqualified many individuals as beneficiaries and kept the grant at R350.
The lawsuit sought to challenge the regulations, describing them as a deliberate method to “exclude millions” of people, and violating their right to social assistance and food as guaranteed by the Constitution.
Among those regulations were the exclusionary online platforms for applications for the grant; bank information to verify applicants’ eligibility; and the prohibition of any new information and evidence when beneficiaries appealed rejections.
The papers also noted an “arbitrary exclusion” of qualifying applicants when funds were depleted, a reduction in the grant’s value over time and a “systemic” non-payment of approved beneficiaries.
The IEJ and #PayTheGrants also sought relief in relation to failure to pay timeously the grants.
The parties also asked the court to direct the Department of Social Development (DSD) and Sassa to file a report with the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria on steps taken or planned to remedy the deficiencies.
Many people said they relied on the R350 for survival.
In an affidavit, Joleen Sampson said: “Early in 2020, I applied for the social relief of distress grant and my application was approved. Payments came regularly until March 2023. After this, my application status changed to declined due to the system erroneously detecting an alternative source of income, but I am unemployed.”
Another grant beneficiary, Vanessa Reece, said she was unable to secure work due to chronic illness.
“Since developing diabetes, it has been harder to keep in good health. The grant helps me buy the right food to manage my diabetes. However, it is too little to cover my food and toiletries. No one in my household is employed, this makes it even harder to manage both my health and financial situation.”
The second applicant is #PayTheGrants (#PTG), a registered non-profit organisation that organises working-class communities for the protection and realisation of their right to social security in South Africa.
Under the current regulations, the SRD grant is set to expire at the end of March 2024.
A co-ordinator for #PayTheGrants, Elizabeth Raiters, said appeals which totalled between 1.2 and 1.5 million each month were turned down.
“The process is unreasonable and irrational. The Tribunal uses the same information provided by Sassa to turn down the application and doesn’t allow applicants to provide evidence.”
The court action was supported by Black Sash, an organisation that consistently fought for an improvement in social assistance.
In May 2023, Black Sash handed a petition with about 330 000 signatories demanding that the government should implement a comprehensive social security by providing permanent social assistance for the unemployed between 18 and 59 years.