A delayed grant payment is a denied grant payment

The most vulnerable in SA should not carry the burden of governments failures.

By Rachel Bukasa, Director of Black Sash.  Published by News24 on Friday 22 September 2023. View here.

This month, the payment of social grants became a living nightmare for hundreds of thousands of grant beneficiaries, who were left destitute, and in an undignified predicament.  A technical ‘glitch’ prevented approximately 600 000 SASSA Gold Cardholders, specifically the elderly, the disabled and caregivers of children from accessing their grant monies.  This is not the first system failure since SASSA took over grant distribution from the Post Office in October last year.  

For Black Sash, and not for the first time, we bore witness to the consequences of these failures. Elderly pensioners were sleeping at pay sites with no money to return home, and those living with disabilities and caregivers of young children visibly broke down because they would return home with no food to feed their young children.

Any delay in accessing their grant monies means beneficiaries find themselves in a worsening cycle of debt as they are forced to take out loans, in most cases from dubious loan sharks who offer their unlawful services at pay sites. For these beneficiaries, it will take a long time to recover from just one delayed payment cycle. 

Over the last decade, Black Sash fought tirelessly to protect beneficiaries’ Constitutional right to receive the full cash value of their grants with dignity. What we have witnessed over the last year is a breach of this right. It is simply unacceptable that beneficiaries continue to carry the financial burden of government failure.

We are particularly alarmed that no guarantees have been given that these technical issues won’t happen in the future. It cannot be acceptable that beneficiaries must just accept that this is normal. Not only does it demonstrate that our own government doesn’t grasp the seriousness that payment failures have on the most vulnerable, but it also shows a lack of concern. The consequence is that there is a tangible fear amongst beneficiaries who have flooded SASSA offices in a desperate attempt to change how they receive their grant monies to a commercial bank account.

Although beneficiaries have the right to choose how they receive their grants.  It is not really a choice.  If a beneficiary chooses to have his/her grant monies paid into a commercial bank account it will incur banking fees, and therefore the beneficiary does not receive the full cash value of the grant.  By choosing to receive one’s grant via a SASSA Gold Card account held by the Postbank, no banking fees are applied, therefore the full cash value of the grant can be withdrawn. 

However, the two options remove a beneficiary’s choice, because on the one hand, choosing a commercial bank account depletes the value of the grant and is contrary to what the grant is supposed to be used for, which is basic needs. On the other hand, beneficiaries stay with Postbank but risk the continued technical issues which causes delays in accessing their grant monies, but still incur costs like transaction failed fees, taking a loan as well as multiple transport costs to withdraw one’s grant.  The bottom line is that this ‘choice’ demonstrates how beneficiaries carry the financial burden of governments’ failures.

Government cannot and must not fail in its Constitutional obligation to deliver social grants.

Black Sash, with our partners, have consistently highlighted that Postbank’s system has not been designed to adequately administer the payment of social grants.  Our concern has been that the Department of Social Development and SASSA, prior to contracting with Postbank, failed to do proper due diligence to determine whether Postbank had the capacity, expertise, and infrastructure to administer the payment of approximately 26 million social grant beneficiaries.

We warned in February this year that there is another brewing crisis in the administration and payment of social grants. Black Sash and Open Secrets questioned that with a reputation of being incapable of managing the technical constraints of its internal systems, why would SASSA and SAPO make Postbank the preferred partner to take over the administration of social grant payments?

“A closer look at Postbank’s history reveals an institution bedeviled by fraud, a lack of financial controls, and lax digital security. In short, it seems to be the last institution you would entrust with a vital role in the social grants payment system.” – Open Secrets and Black Sash.

Sadly, our warnings were in vain and this month we watched with dismay as the proverbial chickens came home to roost. It is now apparent that both the administration and payment of social grants are riddled with issues. 

However, the question civil society now faces is how we intervene, as the burden of the ongoing grant payment failures place on those it is designed to assist is dire because there is no clear plan in place to guarantee that beneficiaries will receive the full value of their grant and on time.We plead with Parliament and the government through the Minister of Social Development to urgently meet with civil society, we cannot wait for lengthy court battles that force the government to do its job.  A plan of immediate action that understands the very real lived realities currently faced by grant beneficiaries must be the priority.