Graphic: The African – Let us fix the R350 grants as the first step to a universal basic income in South Africa and ensure that no one goes without bread again, says the writer.
By Isobel Frye
In 2009, the UN National Assembly declared July 18 as Nelson Mandela International Day, President Mandela’s birthday. Across the world on this day, people undertake to do something to change society to honour the years of personal sacrifice of Madiba.
As we celebrate his freedom and we honour his enormous sacrifices, let us bring true meaning to one of Madiba’s most famous quotes. As he said: “We do not want freedom without bread, nor do we want bread without freedom.”
Let us fix the R350 grants as the first step to a universal basic income in South Africa and ensure that no one goes without bread again, and from that basic platform, we radically change our current structural poverty and misery.
More than 12.4 million adults in South Africa are unemployed. In April 2020, the government rolled out the R350 monthly grant to poor adults to assist in their daily struggles to afford bread and basic needs. This reform was introduced during the extraordinary times of Covid-19, but it was a long overdue recognition of the State’s constitutional obligation to provide social assistance to the poor as mandated by Section 27(1)(c). In March 2022, 10.3 million adults were paid the R350 grant.
Many people have said that the monthly R350 is too little to be a decent income. R350 is less than 60 percent of the food poverty line as set by the World Health Organisation. However, it did make a big difference. It made a big difference to 10.3 million adults in South Africa. To them, their families and their communities.
And then in April, it ceased, and in May again there was no payment, and in June only 3.7 million people received the R350. Many South Africans celebrated the February budget announcement that the R350 grant would be paid for the whole of the coming tax year. The sudden and abrupt ending of these payments in April still cannot be understood by the millions of recipients who had begun to feel some kind of security for the first time in many years.
Lerato was born in 1986 in Bushbuckridge. I met him recently in Graskop, Mpumalanga. Lerato had been receiving the R350 grant every month until April. When we started talking, his overriding concern was to successfully register for the grant again.
Lerato was keen for me to share his story so that readers of this column could understand the pain and helplessness that losing the grant caused. His story is his alone, and yet it is far too familiar for far too many South Africans. People who have freedom but don’t have bread.
Lerato dropped out of school at the end of Grade 9 because his grandmother could not afford to feed him or send him to school. His mother had died when he was young, and his father had died when he was younger still. Lerato says that he was hungry all the time, and he realised that he had to work so that he could eat. He was 14.
Lerato was lucky to find a job in Johannesburg assisting a builder he knew from Bushbuckridge. The two worked together for many years, and he learnt the skills of basic building, basic plumbing, plastering, tiling, and bricklaying, everything but electrical, he says. He says he was lucky that he had a talent. Many people he grew up with had no talent, and so had no job, often doing crimes just to eat.
However, without a social security net, Lerato’s life was rocked by the death of his mentor, as it had been by his parents’ deaths earlier.
After his mentor’s death, Lerato drifted back to Bushbuckridge, and finally settled in Graskop. He had learned skills from his work, but he had no formal certificates or tools, and he had no access to credit to set himself up as a builder. He was one of the millions of unemployed. He was hungry again, once again without access to bread.
And then Lerato started receiving the R350 grant in 2020. For the first few months, he spent the money solely on food: he had gone hungry for a long time. Then, he says, he began to buy a few new clothes, and from there he began to believe that things could get better. With the passage of time, he could save, even just a little. He also pooled food money with other people. After enough months, he was able to buy 15 bags of cement, which he used to make bricks. And from that point, he began to build up an informal subsistence artisanal building business. But he needed the R350 to provide the certainty of income for credit and to plan in the deeply hostile environment that is Lerato’s world.
Without having the certainty of the R350 anymore, he couldn’t get credit to smooth over his input costs. And now he does not know if he can finish the building project he was doing before his grant was stopped in April.
Lerato does not want to sit back and do nothing. He enjoys the challenge and social and economic validation of being a builder, and the satisfaction of training young people as he was trained.
Lerato feels terrible that he has had to let go of the young man he was training because he couldn’t pay him.
The cost of food has skyrocketed, which is dire for people who were already hungry. Two weekends ago, people blocked off the roads into Graskop. People stoned cars trying to get in and out. I asked Lerato what people wanted to change through their protests. Did they want the shops to sell cheaper food, the garage to sell petrol cheaper? Why were people blockading, burning, and injuring others?
Lerato shook his head and said that he didn’t know; no one had said what they thought could change. People were just angry and hopeless. Even the police were in sympathy and stood by while the tyres were burning, he said.
We spoke about how a decent Basic Income Grant of R1,335 could transform his life and the community around him. He said that it would be an incredible life if that happened. He could grow his business and see a whole new generation of skilled builders and customers who would be able to afford the building jobs that could, over time, bring permanence and resilience in the face of storms and fires— real and metaphorical.
When I asked him what he would like to happen tomorrow, in the here and now, he said that if the R350 grant could be paid again, then the pain for him would stop.
Freedom, bread, and security. Fundamental rights. Reintroduce the R350 grant in honour of Madiba. It’s the right thing to do.