What's Wrong With the Social Grants System in South Africa?

By Karen Peters · 6 May 2008

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Picture: Julia Cumes
Picture: Julia Cumes

According to the 2008 Budget Speech, currently there are 12.4 million grant beneficiaries in South Africa, with national expenditure on social assistance to the tune of 75.3 billion Rand.

However, despite spending on social security remaining a significant proportion of our GDP, an important segment of the population still slips through the social security net.

What's wrong with the social grants system in South Africa?

To start with, the targeted nature of our social protection system is hard to miss. From next year, government will be extending the Child Support Grant to children up to the age of 15. Although the grant has been extended, the reality is that there is no social assistance provision for children from age 15 onwards. These children will continue to face income and material deprivation throughout their adult life. Only when they turn 60, will they once again become eligible for state support in the form of an Old Age Pension.

Prominent intellectual and academic, Thandika Mkandawire, points out "Where [policy regimes] lie can be decisive in spelling out an individuals' life chances". He refers to the opposing axis of social protection systems around the world, with universalism (guaranteeing everyone in society a right to social protection) as an approach on one side of the axis and targeting on the other.

On this score, the system of social protection in South Africa is revealing. Our comprehensive social security system caters for the very young, the old and the disabled. Children aged from 15 to 18 years old, as well as impoverished young adults, are completely excluded from any form of income support and are faced with the challenge of structural unemployment.

A system based on social exclusion can only be inept at addressing the magnitude of poverty we face. This is indeed the case in South Africa where one in four adults are unlikely to find work.

Much of the rhetoric justifying impoverished adults' exclusion from income support has relied on arguments that to extend a helping hand to this group would encourage dependency on grants and provide disincentives for people to go out and find work. After all, would you and I work if we got paid to sit at home? When we think this way, home is probably the nicely lit lounge and padded couches with intervals in conveniently located coffee shops, as opposed to the harsh realities of rural and urban poverty.

A lack of sustainability and sound financial judgement is also often cited as the reason South Africa can't help adults gravitate out of poverty. This is despite the constitutional prerogative stating that "Everyone has the right to have access to social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependents, appropriate social assistance". (Section 27(1)c of the Bill of Rights)

But, the ramifications of these choices need to be unpacked in the South African context. A recent study jointly undertaken by two respected research institutes revealed that half of the children living in South Africa live in households where no-one is employed.

It should therefore be hardly surprising that even though there is a high take up of Child Support Grants, 81% of the children in South Africa continue to experience poverty in the form of both income and material deprivation.

In other words, the massive extent of poverty may need a more universally applied and proactive solution that also graduates people out of poverty.

An analysis of the Child Support Grant demonstrates this - its limited monetary value makes the task of improving a child's life circumstances difficult.The Child Support Grant has the highest uptake out of all the grants, with over 7.7 million children benefiting. By comparison, the next highest uptake of grant category is the Old Age Pension with a third of the number of beneficiaries. But in rand terms, the value of the Child Support Grant at R220 per child per month is the lowest out of all the grant categories.

To provide an example of the negative results associated with the capping of the Child Support Grant, last year a young man walked into the Gauteng office of the Black Sash. He was thin and weak and visibly distressed. He had come to ask for help because his daughter had just been removed from the social grant system. His wife, the breadwinner of the family, had died unexpectedly and the only means of income he and his daughter had been surviving on, the Child Support Grant had just been removed.

The fact that the value of the grant is so low and that there is no transition from grant status to no-grant status further demonstrates the ultra targeted nature of our system. This father and child were given no opportunity to prepare themselves for removal from the grant system. When he came to the Black Sash for help, he had been forced into a crisis of survival.

Currently, no provisions are made to ensure that children forced to exit the grant system are sufficiently prepared for the transition from income support to no income support. Social protection as it stands in South Africa may provide a survival mode safety net to households lucky enough to contain individuals that fall into the target groups, but in its basic-ness, it does not address the cause of poverty, which is a lack of assets to generate income. In Brazil, income support is tied to education and wellbeing for children, but critically it is also applied to adults where skills and training are imparted, enabling almost literally a graduation out of poverty.

Given the levels of deep deprivation South Africa faces and high levels of unemployment, our only alternative is to provide social assistance to address chronic poverty, while the broader causes of poverty are addressed through the proper graduation of people out of poverty.

While South Africa's current approach to social protection has been anything but haphazard, the accuracy with which it has sought to improve people's lives has been devastating for those who do not fall within its ambit.

The right question to ask is will social assistance do the trick and, if so, what kind of social assistance do we need?

Thabo Mbeki's penultimate State of the Nation address indicated the formation of a National War Room against poverty that would at long last serve to co-ordinate a national anti-poverty programme with all relevant stakeholders. The announcement of a war room indicates a more coherent approach that can start to systematically tackle systemic poverty.

Social protection forms a large part of making sure South Africa is a society based on the principle of social solidarity. As a middle-income country, it is time that resources match rhetoric and we stop beating about the bush. Our history calls for an investment in South Africans well beyond the current framework and, not just for the young, the old and the disabled.

Karen is advocacy programme manager at the Black Sash.

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pastor chris +
6 May

Tough Times

I work with unemployed youth in the Joburg inner city and the reality is stark for youngsters. With no prospect of employment, where do you turn to for help? Faith organizations are playing a big role in dealing with social development but our capacity is very limited. Activities are also being pushed with the influx of migrants. To me it seems the problem is spiraling out of control but no one cares about unwanted people. It all seems so hidden to the outside world. Tough times are here to stay...god bless us all.

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14 May

Skills and Training

In around 2002 I was working with an company that did some work with Gerotek (vehicle testing centre) in Pretoria, we sometimes used the facilities of the next door government institution. If I remember correctly it was part of the SANDF.

They had an impressive skills training centre able to teach skills in automotive, building and similar fields. It seemed quite modern. The trainers? Sitting on the computer playing games. Why? No students. Why?

Yes, why? Truly sad, but I have no idea why, we just went there a few times a week, I don't remember what they called it, and we never did find out why it was standing still.

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nkagiseng tuge
28 Aug

Social Grants

I believe that proper channels should be followed to see to it that children being granted social grants are being cared for and those recieving orphanage grants, because where I come from these children are suffering more than ever. If you go to school and explain that a child does not have parents they make her/him suffer. Every time they need something for school, the child is sent home to no one to provide and I thought that a child who does not have parents was supposed to not pay fees. Another thing is the material used at schools lately. It is very expensive, e.g., 50 page flip file costs a futune and they need probably 8 of them.

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