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R350 grant ‘a decent path’ for millions who face a hard-knock life

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Picture: Theo Jeptha / African News Agency (ANA) / taken May 24, 2022 – Entrepreneur Lindokuhle Msomi has been saving his R350 grant, and thanks to the National Empowernment fund, Msumi now has his own kitchen where he can make food and sell to the community of Kwamashu in Durban. Lindo’s children, two-year-old Asemahle, left, and Gift, 4, couldn’t stop showing their excitement, kissing their father on his cheeks.

By Isobel Frye

“I had hoped to have something with the R350 grant, but then it stopped. Eish, it is a hard-knock life.” And the camera pans in on the pain in his face and rests in his silence, in a space and time beyond the defences and rebuffs of words.

The story of a beneficiary of the R350 grant. A man in his thirties, unemployed, hungry, and unable to understand how his government just cut the grant to him. No job, no money, no hope. A hard-knock life.

On Saturday 25 March a new documentary will be screened at the Constitution Hill Human Rights Festival about the R350 grant. The film is called A Decent Path and was shot over a period of six months in Gauteng and surrounding provinces. The doccie follows the lives of five beneficiaries of the R350 grant from the joy of application to the inevitable day it just stopped getting paid. No reasons, no recourse. No money.

The beneficiaries’ stories are sufficient to silence the objections of the most hardened opponents of the R350 grant and the much debated universal basic income grant proposals.

As we enter the simple homes of the five beneficiaries as viewers, we can see that these are not the homes of lazy welfare free loaders. Each person’s tale tells of their daily hopes and attempts to get a job and to create a better life for themselves and their children. But as one mother who fell pregnant with her first child in grade 10 says, without qualifications it is simply not possible to find a job. This she states as a fact, her reality. It is not a complaint or a demand, it is just her life.

The film addresses itself to a number of objections that the worthy political and middle-class opinionistas dish out so readily.

The public fear that the grant money goes to waste is a myth steeped in a normative and moral disdain for the poor. The hard- knock life beneficiary spoke of how the R350 money allowed him to bring something home to the family pot, like chicken feet, to feed his child and nephews. As the malume (uncle), there is an expectation that he be a provider for his family. For a few short months he was able to be that for once in his life. His pride of being able to fulfil this basic role shines out in his words, until the grant suddenly stopped.

The sights and sounds of the homes and neighbourhoods of the beneficiaries provides a stark reminder of what reality is for more than 55 percent of South Africans who fall below the poverty line, including the 8 million people who are receiving the R350 grant. The grant was recently extended by the Minister of Finance until the end of the 2023/24 financial year, and after that it will stop.

The beneficiaries’ need for the grant is self-evident from their stories and the visuals. The film weaves in analysis and commentary from experts that include the Minister of Social Development. For readers who will not manage to watch the documentary, a few take home messages.

Firstly, the Constitution says that everybody in South Africa who needs social grants to meet their rights to sufficient food, water and dignity is entitled to a grant and the state must find the money. If we talk rule of law, it starts here. The state must find the money. It is not an optional extra after bail-out budgets for SOEs. It is a standing, binding obligation on the state, and it is justiciable.

Secondly, we can only raise healthy children if we ensure the physical, mental and psychological well-being of the whole household. Poverty affects a household in its entirety. To say we are addressing the needs of poor children with the R500 monthly Child Support Grant, while all the time aware that adult members of the household receive no income, is a lie – it is wrong.

Which is the third point made so clearly by the experts. South Africa cannot provide enough jobs, decent or indecent, for the millions of adults who are out of work. The latest unemployment statistics show that we have just under 12 million unemployed adults, and just over 12.5 million adults of working age who are delinked from the labour market. That is just too many jobs for government to create in an economy that was never designed to offer full employment.

The UK has a slightly higher population at around 67 million people. In December 2022 their unemployment rate was 3.7 percent. A total of 1.3 million people were unemployed. You can absorb 1.3 million people into workfare programmes. You simply cannot absorb 12 million people into workfare programmes. And if we move from that honest admission, we have to answer: how as a government, a country, a nation are we best able to meet people’s basic needs? As Dr Wiseman Magasela says in the film, you have to offer people either a job or an income grant, you can’t deny them both.

And the final message of the movie is simply that South Africa can afford not only to keep the miserable R350 grant but can and should extend it to a universal decent basic income. A UBIG that would shock-stimulate the economy into positive growth and provide a decent life for all.

The filmmaker has juxtaposed visuals that show the extreme levels of wealth and infrastructure inequality in South Africa. There is enough in South Africa, but the inequalities of the past are fiercely protected for today. In the documentary Professor Alex van den Heever identifies the SA Inc balance sheet distortions of middle-class tax relief on private pension schemes as one way in which these inequalities are neatly and invisibly protected.

The billions of rands of tax relief handed back to the rich who contribute to their future wealth through pensions funds is all money forfeited by the state, so it is all money that could have been used to pay more grants to the poor but goes to the future wealth of the already (relatively) wealthy.

So, while the Department of Social Development has to justify annually its budget for the R2,000 state old-age pension to Treasury, the forfeited tax billions credited to the middle class is never debated by Parliament and never has to be justified by pension fund managers, because it does not appear on the budget balance sheets. And that is how privilege is maintained. Impenetrable to the outsider, and absolutely fatal for attempts to build equality.

The documentary is a unique insight into the lives and perspectives of South Africans who will never have the privilege of a monthly salary nor have to worry about a tax burden.

They don’t have to juggle their monthly incomes to pay for private medical aids or schools for their children because they have opted out of a failing state system.

But they live and they love and they want to be able to provide the best for those that they love in a strikingly selfless way. They have hopes and dreams that tomorrow will be better than today. And the R350 grant was one small dependable ladder that life handed to them, but as announced by the Minister of Finance last month, that little bit too will be taken away from millions of people from the next financial year.

It’s a hard-knock life.

Isobel Frye is the Executive Director of the Social Policy Initiative

* The documentary was commissioned by the Social Policy Initiative and produced by Wanaya Visuals and funded by UNICEF SA from the UN Sustainable Development Goals Fund. It will be screed at three thirty pm on 25 March 2023 at Women’s Gaol, Constitution Hill.