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Social Relief of Distress – A small miracle that needs defending

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By Isobel Frye

“It was a time when the unthinkable became the thinkable and the impossible really happened.” Arundhati Roy, ‘The God of Small Things.

These days it is easy to overlook miracles in the noise of our lamentations. Relentlessly rising inflation, climate change crises, the extreme rise in hunger and in South Africa the national sense of powerlessness as people try to navigate normal with only 60 percent energy – this is all a lot to deal with on any given day.

The open-ended nature of all these crises requires a bucket load of faith to be able to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. And so often amongst this sense of hopelessness, the miracles are overlooked. But to sustain ourselves for tomorrow’s battles, we must celebrate today’s miracles, however small they may appear. And one of these miracles is that last month the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) paid out about 1.8 million more Social Relief of Distress (SRD) Grants (“R350 Covid grants”) than 11 months ago. That is definitely a miraculous win given the strength of state of opposition to the grant’s continued existence. But it is a win that must be defended and expanded through collective action from every corner of South Africa.

And at R350 per month, the SRD is only 53 percent of the R663 Food Poverty Line which reflects the cost of an adult’s minimum food intake per month in South Africa. Indeed, the SRD is only 37 percent of the Lower Bound Poverty Line, and 25 percent of the Upper Bound Poverty Line of R1,417 per month. But let’s remain with the win. Every single research report released since the inception of this grant is replete with simple stories of the profound change that this grant brought to the lives of the beneficiaries. Despite the hike in food prices, in the price of transport and paraffin and electricity, people are really grateful for this monthly amount.

There is a story in the Social Relief of Distress stop-start policy design that suggests a state unable to develop a coherent line on social policy. This story speaks of a worrying disregard for the rules of constitutional and international human rights jurisprudence on state obligations in the progressive realisation of socio-economic rights.

The story also speaks of an absolute failure by policy makers to acknowledge that the grand designs of modern economies require active state intervention in the distribution and use or circulation of value prior to the extraction of value as we see in the current crude linearity of extractive monopoly capitalism in South Africa. But most damning perhaps is the message of an utter disregard for the needs and vulnerabilities and essential human dignity of millions of poor adults in South Africa that this policy chaos sends.

The Social Relief of Distress R350 grant was first introduced in April 2020 for six months to provide income to people who had no formal jobs during the Covid-19 hard lockdown. After this it was paid on and off for another 18 months until a 12-month policy was announced in February 2022, and that was repeated in February 2023.

But while there has been this reluctant extension of time duration, the R350 amount has never been increased in line with inflation and the eligibility criteria have been cruelly manipulated to crudely limit the number of successful applications. And with each new iteration of the grant, ministers of finance have gone on record to say that this would be the last one. Their reasoning was clear: Covid-19 restrictions had been lifted and so people should go out and look for work and not look to the state for ‘handouts’.

But while policy makers may have short memories, the unemployed do not. Unemployment was at critical levels long before Covid-19. In Q1 2020, the unemployment rate was 39.7 percent. 10.8 million people were unemployed and a further 3 million people who had given up looking for work. The long- term unemployment rate – a crude signifier of the number of people surplus to the labour market – was already at 72 percent. Before Covid-19 the South African economy was already failing millions of adults daily, but their plight was doggedly ignored by government.

So if just under 14 million adults were unemployed, what has been the take up of this life line grant? In March 2022, before government manipulated the eligibility criteria to drop the grant numbers, just under 16 million people applied for SRD. Seventy percent of applications were approved amounting to 10.9 million payments to poor adults whose poverty had been gauged, vetted, triangulated and approved by the state. Eleven million people became active economic agents whose money drove the wheels of stagnant local economies for a few days. Money well spent.

Except that the next month government slashed payments down to just 5.6 million people. And while both the president and the minister of finance had announced their decision to extend the SRD for a further year, the application system changed overnight. Now each month applicants have to prove their poverty and hunger and need, just in case they found a highly lucrative job in the last 30 days and might be cheating the state of R350. It is a huge burden on vulnerable people, and usually it is the poorest people who are not able to prove their poverty successfully because they don’t have phones or laptops or other mobile devices to do the on-line applications, or money for data to appeal erroneous rejections.

And each month the value of the R350 continues to fall, decreasing the benefit to the beneficiary. According to the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group food price tracker, you can’t even buy a loaf of bread every day for R350. 25 loaves of government brown bread cost R377,57 while 25 loaves of white bread cost R416,21. Instead you could buy 5 kg of sugar beans and 5 litres of cooking oil at R171 and R175, giving you R4 change for the rest of the month, or 30 kg of maize meal and receive R42 change.

But despite these short – comings, the quiet miracle is that the grant is still on the books and more people each month are receiving the grant. In March 2023, 7 million people were paid the R350 and a further 1,3 million people have been approved and are waiting to get their money.

From pre-Covid 19 days, this is the unthinkable and the impossible coming to pass, that poor people are recognised as rights holders and that some of the value of the economy is being actively directed towards them. It is a win that must be owned and celebrated. But it is also a win that must be defended, because in February 2023 the Minister of Finance announced that the SRD will end in March 2024 with no further extensions.

The policy fights will continue and perhaps the courts will be called in to adjudicate the rationality of the state deciding that this grant is not a reasonable budget line item.

We can see and behold the small miracle that is the Social Relief of Distress grant. But if people want to see a true transformation that will begin to forge a new future there must be a united call for a decent permanent universal basic income grant. And if people want to win that call, there must be united action. As the call of workers across centuries has been, this is the time to organise, or starve.

Isobel Frye is Executive Director of the Social Policy Initative

This article is exclusive to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.