Pensioners queue to collect their grants at a Sassa pay point in Jeppes Reef, Mpumalanga. Picture: SOWETAN/SANDILE NDLOVU
Pensioners queue to collect their grants at a Sassa pay point in Jeppes Reef, Mpumalanga. Picture: SOWETAN/SANDILE NDLOVU

It looks like social development minister Lindiwe Zulu’s campaign to introduce a universal basic income grant is gaining momentum.

Last week, all major opposition parties expressed support for the grant that Zulu says should replace the R350 temporary unemployment one introduced in 2020 as part of the government’s efforts to cushion the Covid-19 economic blows on households.  

Aside from uncomfortable questions about whether she actually cares, especially after a horrific incident in February when the police blasted a water cannon over the disabled and desperate South Africans who did not heed her instruction to socially distance and form a line, her crusade highlights a long-standing problem in the country.        

One would expect such a policy, if there was any realistic chance of its being realised, to have at least featured in finance minister Tito Mboweni’s budget speech just three weeks ago. There wasn’t a word on it, with the minister just setting aside more than R6bn to cover the social relief grants until the end of April.  

Without going into the merits of the policy, which was the centrepiece of the Nelson Mandela government in the 1990s, it’s not unreasonable to surmise that the Treasury is not aware of her plans and would push back against any additional spending at a time when the country is facing a fiscal crisis and the government is struggling to convince sceptical ratings agencies that it can stick to its debt stabilisation plans.  

As the unrest at universities over cuts to student funding shows, the government is facing fiscal pressures from every corner, and it’s inconceivable that it can suddenly come up with a new budget item that could cost north of R42bn, assuming all 10-million-plus unemployed South Africans qualify to receive the grant.

Previously, it was suggested the grant should be R1,270, which was then the upper band of the Stats SA poverty line that includes non-food expenses, implying that much more would now be required. Seen against the government’s estimated gross borrowing requirement of R670.3bn for 2020/2021, one gets a sense of how big this number would be.

It’s true that Zulu’s department should be worried, though one would be justified in having serious doubts about whether that is the motivation behind her campaign in the midst of a pandemic-induced social calamity. Yet again, there is no evidence that the department has conducted any serious research into the costing and implementation of such a plan.

Her statement only serves to highlight the government’s incoherent, fragmented and uncoordinated approach to policymaking, which undermines its credibility at a time when it needs to attract investors to support an economy that’s been brought to its knees by the Covid-19 outbreak and lockdowns. It feeds into an unhealthy pattern that has seen government ministers issuing conflicting statements on a range of issues, from the future of SA to the possible nationalisation of the Reserve Bank and land reform.

In early 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa and Mboweni went out of their way to convince investors in the lead-up to the World Economic Forum that the Reserve Bank’s independence was sacrosanct and the government had no plans to change its mandate, only to be contradicted months later by deputy president David Mabuza. Not that Ramaphosa and Mboweni are innocent parties. One day they preach the need for the country to tighten its belt and the next they are doling out billions of rand for a failed airline or daydreaming about starting a state bank.

Ramaphosa acknowledged the pattern after the ANC won the 2019 elections, vowing to reconstitute a policy unit within his office as the nerve centre of co-ordination.

“We have slid into a pattern of operating in silos. This has led to lack of coherence in planning and implementation, and has made monitoring and oversight of government’s programme difficult. It has become a significant deterrent to investment,” he said at the time.

It doesn’t look like much has changed.  

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