On Friday 15 January 2021, as social grant beneficiaries stood in long congested queues outside the Bellville SASSA office, the police who were on site to assist SASSA to manage the growing crowd, used water spray to enforce social distancing.
The Black Sash strongly condemns the police’s use of force and the shameful and shocking disregard for the human rights of vulnerable beneficiaries, many of whom are disabled and chronically ill. There was no justification for the use of water cannons to enforce social distancing as SASSA failed to provide an adequate procedure for the reapplication of temporary disability grants including safe spaces, seating and crowd management for compliance protocols. Grant applicants and recipients at Bellville, many of whom are people living with disabilities, were forced to continue waiting while standing soaking wet on a rainy day.
The police deploying the use of force in the presence of the Minister of Social Development is a clear indication that the Minister and SASSA has lost control of the current situation as more and more people make their way to SASSA offices. This was entirely predictable, given SASSA’s severe capacity constraints and the premature decision to allow temporary disability grants to lapse.
As the Black Sash has warned, SASSA simply does not have the capacity to safely and quickly attend to medical assessments while processing applications. We implore the Minister to act decisively to bring an end to vast crowds of beneficiaries trying to obtain their constitutional right to social assistance. SASSA needs to communicate better with beneficiaries, who remain in the dark about collection days, the process for renewing disability grants and the future of the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant.
The Black Sash calls on President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene. As a result of Minister Zulu and SASSA’s inability to manage the situation, beneficiaries now face the risk of exposure to Covid-19 while crowding outside SASSA offices, with the added threat of police callously using force in the form of water cannons. The President must inform beneficiaries, and the nation, what will be done to ensure that non-violent means will be used to safely manage queues outside SASSA. At a national level, an intergovernmental task team must urgently be established, with representatives from civil society, to resolve this crisis.
DSD, SASSA and the police should publicly apologise to all those whose rights and dignity were violated today. SASSA and the City of Cape Town must resolve the current public dispute regarding access to community halls for SASSA service centres in the metro. Many of SASSA’s mobile services have been closed due to Covid-19 and it has been reported that SASSA staff are working at only 50% capacity.
The Black Sash demands, again, that SASSA reinstate and extend the temporary disability grants that lapsed on 31 December 2020 for three months, until March 2021. SASSA simply cannot manage the thousands of medical assessments that can be expected by those seeking to reapply. Given the current economic crisis, exacerbated by Covid-19, SASSA should expect the crowds outside its offices to continue to grow. Using the violence of water cannons to manage crowds desperately seeking social security to ward off destitution, hunger and poverty can never be government’s solution.
Today’s events signify a very disturbing moment in our democracy. People whose lives have been severely impacted by the ravages of Covid-19, and were seeking the support of the state to find the means to survive, were treated with violence and utter disrespect. The Minister of Social Development did very little to intervene while she sat safely inside a police vehicle. Events of this nature have no place in a constitutional democracy. Those who are responsible need to be held to account. SASSA’s broken systems need to be fixed urgently, and those seeking social protection from the state must be treated with the respect they deserve.
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