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Picture: 123RF/172222080
Picture: 123RF/172222080

As the inevitable shift towards politicking in a general election year engulfed President Cyril Ramaphosa, he was quoted in January as intimating that if the ANC were to lose power the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and social grants system would be at risk of being abolished.

The sentiment naturally drew the ire of a polarised electorate split between those who called it a disingenuous illustration of political rhetoric, and the loyalists who insisted that both NSFAS and social grants were products of ANC policy and hence their sanctity did indeed rest on the ANC’s continued hold on power.  

The NSFAS and SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) cater to a large number of citizens and potential voters and form part of the continuum of pro-poor financial support. Recipients of the social grants include children whose family circumstances warrant that they qualify for the child support and foster care grants.

Inevitably, those who require support at a young age are unlikely to be in a position to fund their transition out of the social coverage net when they come of age and move into the post-school environment.

At this stage, the audience of prior grant recipients gets split into those who qualify for higher education and are fortunate to find financial support from agencies other than NSFAS, those who do not transition into higher education at all, and those whose transition is funded by NSFAS as the non-discriminatory funding agency that does not prioritise high achievers like private funding systems prefer to do.  

Given the strong links between the poverty that warrants access to the grants and the attendance at poorly resourced schools that affects the ability to transition into higher education, NSFAS’s role in catering for the students who are both income-poor and educational resource-poor remains an integral part of managing the social assistance continuum.

In recent years calls have been made for the government to acknowledge that those who depend on Sassa grants as children are more likely to require NSFAS assistance as students. This has led to the view that Sassa recipients should indeed be classified as automatically eligible for NSFAS and remove the administrative burden of proof of eligibility. 

In the annual reports published in 2023 Sassa indicated that it administers more than 18.8-million non-social relief of distress grants at an annual cost of R200bn — another number that loomed large in Ramaphosa’s January 8 statement as an indication of achievement for the ANC.

Within the 18.8-million, childcare and foster care grants accounted for 13.4-million (71%). Every year a fraction of the recipients transitions out of the social coverage net as they reach the “disqualification” age. Within a small time frame this transition coincides with the transition to postsecondary education, where NSFAS has to step in.

In its 2023 reports NSFAS indicated that it covered 1.3-million students for the 2023 academic year. That means during that reporting period 20.1-million children and young adults fell within the ambit of Sassa and NSFAS. The question of whether any new government could countenance abolishing such structures overnight is therefore a rather fanciful proposition given the social fallout that would result.

Reconciling the polarising viewpoints may be assisted through an analysis of Sassa’s articulation of its mandate. Sassa anchors its mandate on the constitutional provisions of section 27, the legislative policy (Sassa Act), the National Development Plan and lastly the priorities adopted by the cabinet.

While cabinet priorities indeed influence the quantum of resources allocated to the social wage and hence an alternative government may spend a bit more or less on such programmes, it is unlikely that any new government would elevate its tampering to the legislative policy and constitutional mandate. Not when the sum of directly and indirectly affected individuals amounts to millions of citizens, whose reliance on the systems of social support has come to be the last guardrail against absolute poverty.

Anyone brave enough to countenance the idea clearly has no clue about the socioeconomic dimensions of the SA electorate. 

• Sithole (@coruscakhaya) is an accountant, academic and activist

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