People queue to collect social security grants. Picture: SOWETAN / SUNDAY WORLD
People queue to collect social security grants. Picture: SOWETAN / SUNDAY WORLD

The payment system of social grants, one of the measures instituted to provide relief to the most vulnerable people, is dysfunctional, raising concern about how it will provide additional relief needed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

To limit crowds, only old-age and disability grants were paid out on Monday and Tuesday, but when beneficiaries in KwaZulu-Natal arrived to draw their money it was not available while people  in the Western Cape were paid double.

In their scramble for grants, especially during the national lockdown, beneficiaries have been standing in long queues for hours with little or social distancing to curb the spread of the virus.

The SA Social Security Agency (Sassa), which issues grants to about 17-million beneficiaries, said on Wednesday it had identified and fixed the problem that forced some recipients to return home empty-handed earlier this week. Sassa said the recipients had now received their money.

Last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a R500bn social and economic support package that includes wide-ranging support for the most vulnerable people through R50bn in expanded social grants. This includes a top-up of grants and a special Covid-19 social relief of distress grant of R350 a month for the next six months for those who are now unemployed and do not receive any other form of grant or UIF payment.

The SA Human Rights Commission has called for accountability after this week’s glitch.

It raised concern about Sassa's “lack of care” to ensure timely payment of grants, and said the recurrence of such events was particularly concerning.

Lack capacity

“The latest occurrence is but one of many that point to significant shortfalls in the capacity of service providers to effectively provide social grants to the most vulnerable,” the commission said.

The Black Sash, which monitors the social-grant payment cycle monthly, has also raised concern about Sassa’s lack of capacity and technical facilities, especially now that more people need social relief than before.  

The organisation’s KwaZulu-Natal regional manager, Evashnee Naidu, said Sassa was made aware on Sunday that there was technical glitch but nothing was communicated to beneficiaries.

She said it was shocking to hear of pensioners having to borrow money to get home after finding their accounts were empty, or sleeping on the streets outside pay points waiting for the Sassa glitch to be fixed.  

Naidu said neither Sassa staff nor technical assistance had been in place to assist. .

To avert a recurrence of such glitches, Sassa said it would add more staff and strengthen controls. It said that people paid double because of the glitch would have to return the money.

Social distancing

“As a principle, the money will have to be repaid. We will communicate the terms of repayment to affected account holders,” Sassa said without giving details.

Sassa said it had limited control over ATM queues but was in constant discussion with the retailing and banking industry on how to improve social distancing.

“We are confident however that once beneficiaries get used to the new payment dates and the fact that the money is still available on any other time of the month, these problems will become history,” it said.

While Sassa grapples with system glitches, the temporary-relief grant announced by Ramaphosa is not yet available. The challenges regarding paying existing grants raises more concerns about additional payments.

In response to queries on social media, the agency said the grant could be applied for only when the application system was put in place. An announcement would be made as soon as this was  done.

Naidu said the government hoped to be able to provide the temporary-relief grant to 2-million to 5-million people, but the Black Sash has estimated that about 15-million people will be applying. Sassa lacked the technical infrastructure to deal with these applications, it said.

Sassa has closed its offices during the Covid-19 lockdown and is not accepting any new grant applications. This is despite calls for them to be open to assist those in need.

In response to a lawyer’s letter from the DA, Sassa CEO Busisiwe Memela said the agency was preparing to open its offices, to which 30% of employees would return.