In a virtual meeting, the Western Cape Provincial Standing Committee on Social Development was briefed on the progress made by the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) in the Western Cape in response to the backlog of temporary disability grants in the province.
SASSA pointed out that in its January engagement with the Committee, it had reported the Western Cape had 52 323 lapsed temporary disability grants (TDGs), which was the highest number in the country. While most offices in the Cape Metro had been flooded with TDG beneficiaries since January 2021, Athlone, Bellville, Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Mitchells Plain and Eerste River had always been regarded as hot-spot areas.
Even though SASSA still experienced queues at its offices, it was pleased to report that the queues were now manageable, and it was no longer necessary to make an appointment because clients were getting assistance on their first visit at some of its offices. The region had developed a ten-point plan to address the management of the lapsed TDGs. Interventions that had been developed and implemented included improved queue management, applicants being provided with appointments for medical assessments and applications, additional SASSA contracted doctors, and the payment of social relief of distress (SRD) grants through private bank accounts.
An engagement session with stakeholders like the South African Human Rights Commission, the Black Sash and SASSA, had been held to provide a regional perspective and update on the TDG project. As a result, a joint communication pamphlet that updated clients and stakeholders on what was happening on the ground and how the process was working had been developed. Major concerns involved the tendency of clients to miss appointments, because that was impacting negatively on the project timelines and had financial implications. SASSA offices had not been operating at full capacity due to Covid19 protocols.
Members wanted to know what the best way for the Committee to communicate with SASSA was, because poor communication had resulted in the cancellation of many meetings with the entity, and this delayed getting important information and responses to emails. They asked for clarity on the decrease in applications from 52 000 to 48 000, and also wanted to know how many TDG applications were still to be approved. They wanted to know if beneficiaries who had not received payments since December would be back paid, and if SASSA would be able to deploy additional staff to needy areas to assist beneficiaries.
Temporary disability grant backlog
Mr Sibusiso Nhlangothi, General Manager: Core Business, Western Cape, South African Social Security Agency (SASSA), said the presentation served as an update to the Committee on the progress made in eradicating the backlog on temporary disability grants (TDGs) in the province. In January, SASSA had reported to the Committee that the Western Cape had 52 323 lapsed TDGs, which was the highest number in the country. 64% of this number was concentrated in the Cape Metro. The number of care dependency grants (CDGs) was 999.
While most offices in the Metro had been flooded with TDG beneficiaries since January, Athlone, Bellville, Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Mitchells Plain and Eerste River had always been regarded as hot-spots areas.
Even though SASSA still experienced queues at its offices, it was pleased to report that the queues were now manageable and it was not necessary to make appointments, because it could assist clients on their first visit to some of its offices.
Metro Health had made 64 doctors available to conduct virtual assessments, and all doctors had been trained by SASSA. The following had been agreed upon:
- The virtual/folder assessment approach would first be piloted at two health institutions on 25 and 26 February.
- 300 cases were completed by three doctors, which equated to 50 assessments per day per doctor.
- The pilot was successful, and with the roll-out it was estimated that each doctor would complete a minimum of 250 virtual assessments per week.
- Virtual assessments would be rolled out across the Metro as from the beginning of March.
In January, the region had developed a ten-point plan to address the management of the lapsed TDGs in the Western Cape. The following interventions had been developed and implemented:
- For improved queue management, extra staff had been assigned to help manage the queues from 06h00 in the morning. National Development Agency (NDA) and the City of Cape Town volunteers were available to assist until the queue was manageable.
- All applicants would be provided with appointments for medical assessments and applications.
- The Provincial Department of Health (DOH) had been approached for extra doctors and space to accommodate any additional SASSA contracted doctors. 33 doctors were made available by the DOH for this purpose all over the province.
- The payment of the social relief of distress (SRD) through the private bank accounts of qualifying applicants had been operationalised.
- To secure additional SASSA contracted doctors, supply chain management (SCM) had forwarded invitations to approximately 500 doctors in the Western Cape to register on the supplier database. To date, an additional 18 doctors have been contracted, while the process to contract more doctors continued.
- SASSA hotspots for the placement of the additional doctors had been identified.
- -he ten-point plan was developed as an effective tool to mitigate influx challenges created by the lapsed TDGs in SASSA offices.
- The ten-point plan was in the main developed to ease pressure at SASSA offices through effective management of queues, to protect both SASSA staff and clients from COVID 19 infection, to comply with COVID 19 regulations, to provide dignified services to clients, and to ensure they did not wait too long in queues before they were serviced.
- Based on SASSA’s assessment, it was of the view that it had managed to implement about 90% of the ten-point plan elements.
With regard to stakeholder engagement, Mr Nhlangothi said a meeting had taken place between SASSA Bellville, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and the Black Sash, on 9 February. A follow-up meeting with the general manager (GM) for grants’ administration was held as promised in the previous meeting, and the GM had provided a regional perspective and update on the TDG project. A joint communication pamphlet that updated clients and stakeholders on what was happening on the ground, and how the process was working, had been developed.
Lastly, he pointed out that their major concerns were around the tendency of clients missing appointments, because that was impacting negatively on the project timelines and had financial implications. SASSA offices were not operating at full capacity due to Covid 19 protocols. Incidents which were elevated to political office bearers with no substance, like the one that had happened in Gugulethu, took much of SASSA’s already depleted resources and consumed time.
The Chairperson wanted to know what the best way was for the Committee to communicate with SASSA, because poor communication had resulted in the cancellation of many meetings with the entity, and it was getting delayed important information and response via emails. It was rare for the Committee to get feedback from SASSA.
Mr Abraham Mahlangu, Acting Western Cape Executive Manager: SASSA, said he had not seen the agenda of matters to be discussed with the Committee, but as soon as he got it, he would be in constant communication. He would make a follow-up on pending correspondence between SASSA and the Committee. All outstanding matters would be attended to.
Mr Nhlangothi added that some of the challenges could have been caused by the “changing of the guard” at the time when this chaos was happening. He apologised for not honouring a planned meeting with the Committee, because it had clashed with an unplanned visit of the national Minister.
Mr R Mackenzie (DA) asked for clarity on the decrease in applications, from 52 000 to 48 000. He also wanted to know how many TDG applications were still to be approved and what the current status was in terms of approvals. What were the timelines for the finalisation of applications?
Mr Nhlangothi said the decrease was a result of reinstating a number of grants, such as the vulnerable grant, grants-in-aid, and grants received by clients through an administrator. The reinstatements were done nationally, hence the reduction in the figure. When it came to applications, when the client left the SASSA offices, he or she would leave with a confirmation letter stating when the grant would be approved and date for receipt of payment. It was hoped all applications would be finalised by the end of March 2021.
Ms R Windvogel (ANC) wanted to find out why SASSA was in a mess it was in the first place. She asked if beneficiaries who had not received payments since December would be back-paid. She further wanted to understand how rural people who arrived very late during the day were going to be helped to access pay-points, when elderly people had already been standing in long lines for many hours.
Mr Nhlangothi said that when President Ramaphosa announced level five, SASSA had held many discussions. Old age and child support grants had been increased. Those grants were still paid to beneficiaries. There were grants that lapsed after six months, which later were extended to December. Temporary disability grants were meant only for six months, while permanent disability grants had a lifespan of 12 months. Disability grants were for those who could not look after themselves, but that had to be approved by a medical doctor.
Regrading back-dated payments, he pointed out that grants were paid from the day an application was made and approved. It had been disturbing to hear that mobile offices or access-points started to operate only at 11h00, when people had been queuing since the early hours of the morning. Office hours extended from 06h00 in the morning until 18h00 in the evening, except for the one in Khayelitsha that closed at 19h00 in the evening. This revelation had opened their eyes to areas they knew nothing about, and was helping SASSA to deal with district managers in order to sort out the problems.
Mr R Allen (DA) wanted to know if SASSA would be able to deploy additional staff to needy areas to assist beneficiaries, and whether it would be possible to process all applications by the end of March. He asked if SASSA had consulted doctors about deployment in rural areas, seeing that most people did not want to work in rural areas. He asked for an explanation on how TDG online applications were made, and the steps involved in virtual assessments.
Mr Mahlangu informed the Committee they would be guided by monitoring and planning to see if staff needed to be repurposed in hotspot areas. The online booking system would be put to the test in the next two months. The pilot would happen in the Western Cape.
Mr Nhlangothi added there would be no additional staff deployed, but they would be going back to their normal working hours. On a daily basis, they would observe where resources were mostly needed, and would be moved to that area. Regarding virtual assessments, he said people who had applied for a temporary disability grant and permanent disability grants were captured on their database. The medical doctors had access to the files. The doctors would look at the medical files and make a recommendation. Then the person would be put on a TDG or permanent disability grant. If the person was not satisfied, the client would be called for an assessment.
He added there were doctors that had been contracted by the health department, while SASSA had its own team of doctors. Virtual assessments would be finalised, especially in rural areas. The SCM was busy speeding up the process of contracting doctors.
Ms N Makamba-Botya (EFF) asked why the Western Cape had the highest number of TDG suspensions.
Mr Nhlangothi said this was a concern, because there were many answers they were hearing about the issue. Scientific evidence was needed to get the answer, so that SASSA was able to respond. The findings of the research would provide the answer, and already the entity had spoken to some research institutions in the province to see if a study could be done within six months.
The Chairperson wanted to know how many social relief of distress (SRD) vouchers had been granted to temporary grant recipients. He also wanted to know how 31 000 applicants were going to be assessed if SASSA had a small number of medical doctors, and if SASSA would be operating at 100% staff capacity, since the country was on level one.
Mr Nhlangothi said doctors had been deployed in the Southern Cape, the West Coast and Boland. Most areas of the province were covered. He said 100% capacity would be directed by the head office in terms of staff working from home, but it had to be remembered there were those with co-morbidities who had to work from home. Social distancing would have to be observed for those who would be working at the offices. A document with statistics on SRD vouchers would be sent to the committee.
Mr Mackenzie wanted to know when people were going to get final answers regarding their applications, to avoid another Bellville crisis.
Mr Mahlangu explained that the completion of assessments did not mean the grants would be approved. Sometimes the challenge was that people did take no for an answer, even though SASSA would explain to the client why the outcome was not as expected.
Mr Nhlangothi added that sometimes people made the same application. For instance, Person 1’s application may get approved due to health conditions, but Person 2’s was not approved because the health condition was not serious. One would find that Person 2 was making the application out of desperation. When an appointment was made with the doctor, be it for a temporary disability grant or a permanent disability grant, that was the beginning of a process which may go either way. When the client left the SASSA office, he/she would know if his/her application had been approved or not. If it had not been approved, there was a process of appeal that was followed. Assessments would be finalised by the end of March. A step by step process for approval would be sent to the Committee so that it understood how it worked.
Mr Mackenzie wanted to establish if there was a communication plan in place to explain to people why they were not getting their grants.
Mr Mahlangu responded that when the process took place, the recipient had to see the doctor. It was not the doctor who approved -- it was SASSA that made the approval. Seeing the doctor did not automatically qualify one for the grant. Once the doctor was done with the virtual assessment, SASSA called the people to the office to bring the required documents. The person would then leave SASSA’s offices knowing if his grant had been approved or not. If it was not approved, an explanation was given to the individual.
SASSA did background checks just to see if the circumstances of the person had changed so that the person could be re-instated if she/he was on a TDG, and placed on a permanent disability grant. The process took a bit longer. SASSA would continue to improve its services to ensure there was nothing like fraud that would delay its processes.
Ms Bettie Nieuwoudt, StellCare Director, informed the Committee that last year they became aware that something would happen to the grant recipients. StellCare had engaged with SASSA several times in an effort to offer its services to SASSA free of charge so that people did not get turned away at SASSA offices. This was a crisis that could have been mitigated. StellCare had put together a video on how it could collaborate with SASSA, especially on volunteering for crowd control. The challenge was that the Department of Health refused to collaborate with StellCare, despite giving it guarantees, because they wanted to help people. Not only was the disability grant going to cause the problems, but all grants.
She said they could assist SASSA to process 110 applications. Covid-19 allowed people to work without coming to work. Not a single day had the StellCare office been closed, and it not done its work. She had proposed that SASSA should send officials to StellCare, but there was reluctance to step out of their offices to help the needy. SASSA had been asked to train StellCare volunteers so that they could help with online applications. Stellenbosch had never experienced overcrowding and instability because it was good with crowd control. She said communication with SASSA was very poor. StellCare had dealt with foster care grants as well, and she urged closer cooperation with SASSA in order to resolve challenges in the interest of the people.
Mr Mahlangu said it was good to hear the willingness of StellCare to partner with SASSA. A meeting would be set up to see what the organisation offered, in order to improve SASSA’s service delivery to clients. Assistance with online applications would be discussed with Ms Nieuwoudt as well. He appreciated the constructive comments and criticism that came from the Committee Members, because that would help the entity to better understand the work of the Committee and its thought processes.
The Committee had a concern whether all the grant applications would be processed by the end of March. It said SASSA should inform the remaining 31 000 applicants that seeing a doctor was not a guarantee that the application would be successful. SASSA should send a list of the locations where its officials did not turn up, and should send the weekly reports it sends to the national office and Minister, including an expenditure report on social relief grants. Lastly, the Committee resolved it would engage with SASSA to ensure mobile police stations were always at Thusong Centres, so that people did have to travel long distances to get affidavits. It would find out if SASSA officials could act as commissioners of oath.
Adoption of minutes
The Committee minutes dated 11 February 2021 were adopted.
The meeting was adjourned.
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