Universal Basic Income Coalition is concerned about the apparent deepening of digital hurdles to accessing the SRD Grant

Cape Town, Monday 24 June 2024: The South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) has intensified its efforts to exclude people from accessing the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant, citing concerns about suspected fraud as rationale for requiring people in need to jump through yet more hoops to access their meagre entitlements.

The Universal Basic Income Coalition (UBIC) became aware in the past week that many profiles of SRD grant beneficiaries have been automatically flagged by SASSA as being at risk of having committed or been the victim of identity theft or fraud. There has been no notice or prior communication from SASSA about this action.

From SASSA’s response to our query for an explanation of this development, UBIC understands that these beneficiaries’ grant payments will be suspended until they undergo a complex online biometric verification process. If they are unable to complete this process within a certain timeframe, based on recent amendments to the SRD grant regulations, their payments can potentially be cancelled.

While it seems that the actions are at present applied only to the SRD grant, there are concerns they could be rolled out to other parts of the grant system as well, such as the Child Support Grant which is a lifeline against hunger for millions of children.

The beneficiaries we are in contact with who have been affected by this action are not perpetrators or victims of fraud or identity theft. They are community members living in food poverty who have a right to assistance from the State, many of them caregivers to children.

“Even if these beneficiaries successfully completed their verification and were approved for June, they may not receive their grants this month due to the allocated pay dates,” stated Elizabeth Raiters, of #Pay The Grants. “While we understand the necessity to curb fraud, the manner and timing in which SASSA has rolled out these changes have placed an undue burden on already vulnerable individuals.”

The biometric verification system requires a beneficiary to have a camera-enabled phone and internet access—amenities not available to many living in food poverty. We have long tried to highlight the hurdle posed by the biometric verification system as well as the exclusively online application system. This is one of the key issues that the Institute for Economic Justice and #PayTheGrants are challenging in a litigation against the government over the management of the SRD grant.

Use of algorithms to exclude, and collaboration with banks

Of grave concern is the apparent use of automated systems and third party data to assign what seem for all intents and purposes to be criminality risk profiles or scores to beneficiaries. UBIC understands that SASSA is working in partnership with the banks to gain access to beneficiary data which is then used to decide whether they fall into a risk category for fraud. The type of data that is used and the parameters by which risk is assessed are, to our knowledge, not disclosed. It is unclear the extent to which beneficiaries have provided informed consent to their data being shared and used in this way. It is also unclear whether beneficiaries are able to request information on how an automated decision affecting their access to income was arrived at, or to seek recourse for harms arising from such decisions.

In 2019, a scandal erupted in the Netherlands as it emerged that the tax authority had done something similar—penalising child care grant beneficiaries if they were suspected of fraud based on an algorithmic risk profile which took into account factors such as whether they held dual citizenship. This had a devastating impact on the lives of tens of thousands of beneficiaries and their children, and the Dutch tax authority was fined €3.7 million from the privacy regulator.

Concerns around migration to Smart ID Card system

We have also received reports from several beneficiaries that they have been advised by the SASSA call centre that they are now required to have Smart ID Cards in order to receive the reverification link. This is very worrying as it is not reflected in official government policy or communications, and seems to have no bearing on SASSA’s ability to verify whether a beneficiary has committed or been the victim of identity fraud. This would add an extra barrier to access, which is most likely to affect those most in need of the grant, without the means to gain a Smart ID Card. In addition Smart ID Cards can take time to obtain from the Department of Home Affairs, and this change may effectively deprive beneficiaries of their grants for one or more months. We request urgent clarification from SASSA as to whether this is indeed a new requirement, and if so, why, and to whom it is being applied.

Call for accountability

UBIC acknowledges the importance of safeguarding against fraudulent activities but at the same time points out yet again that the scale of unfair inclusion in the SRD grant is dwarfed by the scale of unfair exclusion of beneficiaries—a travesty made worse again by these new punitive actions.

UBIC emphasises that any measures to combat unfair inclusion should not come at the expense of depriving vulnerable persons of their basic human rights. The Coalition calls on the Department of Social Development and SASSA to be transparent by openly communicating and addressing the concerns. We urgently reiterate the need to put policies and procedures in place that ensure that all eligible beneficiaries can access their grants without unnecessary barriers.

We further call on government to be transparent about the digital systems and opaque algorithmic decision-making underpinning the administration of the SRD grant, as a first step towards the realisation of accountability, proportionality, non-discrimination and recourse where digital technologies are used in gatekeeping access to basic rights.

**About the Universal Basic Income Coalition:**

UBIC is a coalition of civil society organisations advocating for the implementation of a universal basic income grant in South Africa to alleviate poverty and ensure economic security for all in South Africa.

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UBIC is comprised of the following organisations: