The elderly queuing for social grants at Dobsonville Mall in Soweto during the lockdown. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE
The elderly queuing for social grants at Dobsonville Mall in Soweto during the lockdown. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE

The SA Social Security Agency (Sassa), without a trace of irony, used the hashtag #SassaCares when it tweeted this week that all but one Covid-19 relief grant would come to an end this month.

Maybe the tone-deaf agency wasn’t expecting a fight. If so, it miscalculated.

Nonprofit organisation Black Sash on Thursday filed legal papers at the Pretoria High Court to interdict the finance minister, Sassa and the minister of social development from stopping the monthly R500 caregiver grant.

This grant was one of the economic relief measures announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa in April, when he said poverty and food insecurity had “deepened dramatically” after the first, three-week lockdown.

At the time Ramaphosa said this grant would be available from June to October. It made its debut under a cloud of controversy, as it was understood as a “top-up” for each child-care grant instead of one grant per caregiver.

Now all top-up payments for grants — including the old-age and foster-care grants — are being withdrawn. However, the R350 “special relief” grant for the unemployed continues until the end of January.

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies (Cals), acting for the Black Sash, argues in court papers that withdrawing a grant that went primarily to black women while maintaining the R350 “special relief” grant which, they say, goes primarily to men, is discriminatory.

It also argues that cutting assistance is unconstitutional.

In legal papers, the Black Sash’s lawyers say Sassa is not the executive arm of the government, so it can’t just decide to stop a grant. Nor does the Black Sash think finance minister Tito Mboweni’s announcement this week that the “temporary increases in other grants will unfortunately have to come to an end” suffices.

Ariella Scher, lawyer for Cals, says it was the minister of social development’s directives that created the framework for the grant and it must be terminated lawfully by the minister and in the government gazette.

Cals says the original grant was gazetted without an expiry date. If anything, expiry is likely to take place at the end of the state of disaster, which is only due on November 15. And even if the termination of the R500 caregiver grant is lawful, the Black Sash argues it shouldn’t take place, in light of the pandemic-induced economic crisis.

“The harm to be suffered is untold. The beneficiaries of the caregiver grants have come to rely on it to weather the storm that is Covid-19,” they say in court papers.

Cals also argues that by extending one grant the government is conceding that the economy is still weak and that special assistance is necessary. In this context, they argue, it’s irrational to end another grant.

“To terminate the caregiver grant now, while as a nation we are still in the eye of the Covid-19 storm, is to deprive caregivers of the very protections that the social development direction seeks to accord them,” they say.

Scher also argues that taking away the grant is “retrogressive” in a constitutional system that advocates the progressive realisation of human rights.

While the Black Sash makes a strong case, it’s not an argument that lies entirely uncontradicted.

Hugo Pienaar, an economist at Stellenbosch University’s Bureau for Economic Research, says it was made clear from the start that the caregiver grant would be temporary.

It also comes at a big cost. In June, Mboweni’s supplementary budget showed that roughly 7.2-million people would receive the R500 grant, which costs the government about R3.6bn a month.

Says Pienaar: “In the bigger scheme of things it does not sound like much. But [if] you extend that for three months, you’re looking at R10.8bn, which, given our constrained fiscal situation, is quite substantial.”

He argues that there just isn’t enough money to extend every grant.

“Our fiscal situation is such that we now need to make choices about what is really important to throw money at,” he says.

Pienaar adds that the controversial R10.5bn that the Treasury is giving to keep the flailing SAA alive would have been almost enough to fund an extension of that grant. “A three-month extension would be a much more worthy cause than more funds for SAA.”

The spokesperson for the department of social development did not respond to the FM’s queries, but Scher says the government has given notice of its intent to oppose the virtual urgent application on Friday.

But for the government to now terminate a payment that people have come to rely on, with unemployment at around 30%, won’t be easy. At this point it looks like a desperate attempt by it to put the genie back in the bottle.

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