Defrauded pensioners left destitute

Thousands of elderly people are allegedly being defrauded of their state pensions and left destitute.

Social Development MEC Albert Fritz on Thursday alleged the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) had been unlawfully deducting money from pensioners nationwide and that there was a "growing spate of administrative disaster" within the agency - resulting in many people left without money to buy even bread.

Sassa spokeswoman in the Western Cape, Shivani Wahab, said the agency was aware that there were people who coaxed beneficiaries into divulging their personal details like their pension PIN numbers.

Fritz said his department intended seeking a court order to compel Sassa to reimburse pensioners, and he wanted his national counterparts to probe the matter. "We want to know how many people from the organisation have been convicted of theft. My office is inundated with calls, letters and even walk-in visitors who, out of sheer desperation and frustration, turn to the Western Cape government for assistance with the lack of support from Sassa," he said.

Fritz, who has consulted pensioners from different communities, said the most complaints were about funds not loaded on to cards the day grants were paid, grants being suspended without explanation, electricity deductions for a meter that does not belong to a grant recipient and cellphone airtime deductions - in some cases from people who did not even have a cellphone.

Lorraine Goldman, a resident of an old age home in Matroosfontein near Bishop Lavis, said she was shocked to see that of her R1 350 pension, only R1.16 was paid into her account in April. Her husband was paid only R16.

Most of the money deducted was for airtime purchases from a network Goldman said she does not subscribe to. Goldman, 67, said many of the home's residents experienced the same problem. Last month R100 was deducted from her pension for prepaid electricity. "I was shocked and couldn't believe that all the money was gone. Luckily I could rely on my children to help me through the month," said Goldman. She contacted the Sassa call centre to ask about the deducted money, but has had no response.

Wahab said Sassa was experiencing some "challenges" regarding the illegal or fraudulent deductions. "There are unscrupulous people contacting beneficiaries, requesting details of their PIN and ID numbers. Such information should never be disclosed to a third party as it could lead to fraudulent deductions," Wahab said.

In November, human rights organisation Black Sash launched a countrywide "Hands off the Social Grants" campaign in a bid to stop the illegal deductions. Black Sash national advocacy manager Elroy Paulus said the deductions were an infringement on people's human rights and compromised the dignity of those at a loss.

Francesca Villette, June 6 2014