Millions of grant recipients ripped off

by Ann Crotty, September 07 2014

AS AUTHORITIES battle to shore up the fallout from the collapse of African Bank, there are growing signs that a second lending crisis is playing out in the shadows of the formal banking sector.

In rural areas, unscrupulous lenders are swooping on social-grant recipients, getting access to their grant money and hitting them up for cellphone airtime, funeral insurance and even micro loans. In some cases, recipients have had nearly all their grant money deducted to pay for these products.

The Black Sash and the Association of Community Advice Officers of SA are leading a campaign to stop the abuse of the outsourced social-grant payment system, currently administered by Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), a subsidiary of the JSE-listed Net1 UEPS.

In a letter sent to the government, the Black Sash said: "Regrettably, access to the social-grant beneficiaries' database was facilitated by the outsourced contract between CPS and the South African Social Security Agency [Sassa]."

These service providers have been able to access personal information from the database controlled by CPS, and are using dubious marketing methods to market loans, airtime, funeral insurance and other financial products to grant beneficiaries.

"Data collected in all nine provinces reveal that repayments for credit have been debited from Sassa beneficiaries' bank accounts, in the order of 10% to 97% of monthly grant payments."

The Black Sash said it had collected evidence that Net1 subsidiaries, which include CPS and microlending companies, were targeting social-grant beneficiaries with credit products using confidential information given to CPS.

Earlier this year, Net1's CEO, Serge Belamant, claimed in an interview with this newspaper that his company's decision to market loans to grant beneficiaries was "ethically defensible".

"People are free of mind, and you still have to allow them to do what they want with their grant money. If they want to spend money on airtime, they're going to," he said.

Belamant said that 3.2 million of the grant recipients had used Net1's cellphone service to buy airtime and electricity, arguing that "we're giving them something they need, and we're giving them something better and cheaper than they could get elsewhere".

Bathabile Dlamini, the minister of social development, and Sassa are expected to announce details of a new tender process within days. Sassa was obliged to run a new tender for the administration of social grants by a Constitutional Court ruling in April, which panned the earlier tender.

In a devastating ruling, the court said the tender process, won by CPS, was irregular and therefore invalid. The court ordered that grant payments were not to be disrupted but that Sassa must rerun the tender with a new committee, and provide reports every three months on progress with the new tendering process.

On June 14, Sassa issued the first of these reports.

Speculation is high that Dlamini might also announce wide-ranging plans to address mounting concern about the devastating impact of unregulated deductions from social grants.

At stake is the distribution of about R120-billion of social grants paid to about 16 million beneficiaries every year.

Virginia Petersen, CEO of Sassa, said earlier this year that these payments were "intended for the basic welfare of the poorest and most vulnerable in society, including children, the elderly and disabled".

The Social Assistance Act stipulates that the only deduction that may be made against a grant is for a funeral policy, and such a deduction must not exceed 10% of a grant.

However, every month across the country millions of social-grant beneficiaries are getting just a fraction of what they are due from the government. Some of the deductions are fraudulent while others reveal evidence of reckless lending.

Critics claim they are probably all unlawful and immoral.

The Black Sash's Elroy Paulus said that instead of receiving cash, social grants were paid into an Sassa-branded Grindrod bank account made possible through the CPS contract. These bank accounts facilitated electronic debit deductions on behalf of creditors, particularly by subsidiaries in the Net1 stable at high interest rates.

The strategy to bank the "unbanked" had further impoverished many, said Paulus.

Unscrupulous finance and service providers prey on grant recipients.

"Many deductions continue even if the loan or service has been paid off because these third parties have access to the recipient's bank accounts."

The Black Sash and other community-based organisations are calling for debit deductions to stop and also for restrictions on third-party creditor access to bank accounts.

The commercial beneficiaries of the current system are CPS and Net1, which not only receive R2-billion a year from Sassa for distributing the grants, but also earn hefty profits from selling prepaid airtime and electricity to grant recipients. It uses a scheme called Umoya Manje to market its services.

Payout receipts contain a message urging recipients to call *130*4444# "for access to amazing cardholder benefits". Dialing the number gets them through to Umoya Manje.

• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times