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In April 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa introduced a raft of social assistance measures to provide relief to struggling South Africans as the economy took a battering from Covid. Among these was the R350-a-month social relief of distress grant, which for the first time brought unemployed adults aged 18 to 59 into the social security net.

Given the need for social distancing – and the fact that the new grant beneficiaries were not registered with the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) – private partners such as GovChat were brought on board to digitise the process.

This is not unusual. Around the world, private companies are being contracted to facilitate the digitalisation of state services. But as a new Open Secrets investigation shows, these digital systems can be used in ways that cause harm – particularly to people in need of social assistance.

In the “digital welfare state”, private companies seek to profit from the personal data they gather through digital grant systems co-created with the state. These systems enable extensive surveillance on the part of corporations and the state, in turn enabling huge profit-taking and greater political control.

It’s a particularly concerning issue in SA, given Sassa’s poor track record in protecting grant beneficiaries from the predatory conduct of private actors. Who can forget, for example, how it failed to hold Net1 and CPS to account for their abuse of the grants process.

Open Secrets and the FM hosted a Financial Mail Private Lounge online discussion on issues and more, drawing on Open Secrets’ new report, “Digital Profiteers: Who Profits Next from Social Grants?”

FM editor Rob Rose was in discussion with:

  • Hoodah Abrahams-Fayker: national advocacy manager, Black Sash;
  • Michael Marchant: head of investigations, Open Secrets;
  • Abby May: intern, Open Secrets; and
  • Alison Tilley: attorney and part time member, Information Regulator South Africa.


Image: Supplied by Open Secrets
Image: Supplied by Open Secrets

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