Video: Portfolio Committee on Social Development, 05 March 2021
03 Feb 2021: Temporary disability grant reapplications & overcrowding at SASSA: update with Minister
20 Jan 2021: Lapsed temporary disability grants, reapplications, overcrowding at SASSA offices: with Minister
In this virtual meeting, the Department of Social Development responded to questions raised previously on the pre-introduction consultation process in relation to the Children’s Amendment Bill. from the previous meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Social Development. The South African Local Government Association (SALGA) had indicated that there had not been enough coordination and collaboration by the different spheres involved in the process. The Department assured the Committee that it had complied with the Constitution by publishing the Bill for public comment. The presentation discussed several ways in which SALGA could have been consulted. The Department indicated that a legal technical team consisting of Parliamentary legal advisers and SALGA would be formed, and would look at the contested clauses of the bill.
The Department and the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) presented an update on the management of the Temporary Disability Grant. A 10-point plan was presented to improve different processes relating to the grant. Queue management would be improved by rotating staff, deploying volunteers to ensure compliance with Covid-19 safety measures, giving priority to vulnerable clients and providing chairs, water and ablution facilities. Applications would take no longer than 15 minutes, and an automated booking system would be introduced at a later stage.
Securing additional venues for disability grant applications was another point on the 10-point plan, as well as the approval of overtime for staff to ensure that more clients could be assisted. SASSA had negotiated with the provincial Department of Health to assist with doctors, increasing efficiency. An electronic medical assessment tool was utilised to track bookings, applications and the assessments. An interim solution to an inefficient contact centre was to introduce an outsourced service provider, which would enable progress in the long term. Call centre responsiveness had also been improved through the strengthening of call centre capacities.
SASSA and the South African Post Office (SAPO) gave a collaborative presentation on addressing queue management challenges. Social grant payments were staggered, based on the type of grant, reducing the number of daily payments through SAPO accounts. Several measures had been implemented to ensure adherence to Covid-19 safety protocols, including the deployment of compliance officers, alternative venues for larger volumes of people and the use of chairs to create a fixed queue. Staff were deployed earlier in the morning to deal with busier premises and vulnerable members of society were moved to the front of the queues. SAPO used SMS communication to schedule dates for clients to reduce the volume of clients on a given day. There was a new measure of staggering payments, based on the last three numbers of the identity card to schedule clients. Cash flow projections had improved, resulting in fewer clients being turned away. Fraudulent activities related to the SAPO/PostBank card had been addressed and fraudulent transactions had ceased.
To deal with robberies and burglaries, more guards had been deployed at SAPO branches and social relief of distress (SRD) grant sites. Collaboration with the South African Police Service was a high priority, characterised by daily communication. Cash in transit measures had also been improved to ensure security and efficiency, but card replacement initiatives had been unsuccessful.
Members provided examples of inefficiency at pay points in their constituencies and other areas. They asked about the measures in place to ensure the security of clients and cash-in-transit guards. SASSA’s virtual assessments needed clarification, because clients were sometimes unable to see a doctor due to their temporary disability grant lapsing. Other issues raised included the online application process; what would happen to clients who were unable to collect their grants; limited personal working at queueing stations and the lack of social distancing measures; the poor facilities at some offices and the outright closure of others; and opening busy post offices earlier to increase efficiency.
The Chairperson outlined the meeting agenda:
- Adv Mtshotshisa would briefly respond to the questions raised in the previous meeting;
- The Department would present an update on the management of the Temporary Disability Grant Project; and
- South African Post Office (SAPO) representatives would present on addressing queue management challenges as part of the South African Social Security Agency’s (SASSA’s) and SAPO’s collaborative effort.
Department of Social Development (DSD) response to legal questions
Adv Luyanda Mtshotshisa, Specialist: Legislative Drafting and Review, DSD, provided responses to specific legal questions that were asked in a meeting on March 3. The legal opinion that was sought was on the process that was followed by the DSD before the introduction of the Children’s Amendment Bill to Parliament. The Department had initiated the process of amending the Children’s Amendment Act since 2011, immediately after the act was implemented. This was a result of certain implementation challenges that were identified. During the process of developing the Children’s Amendment Bill, there was a court challenge launched by the Centre for Child Law, resulting in an order directing the Minister of Social Development to amend the legislation in order to develop a legal solution.
The Act is intersectional in nature and implementation, with obligations on a variety of functionaries from different organs of state in all spheres of government. In these spaces, the DSD had established a National Child Care and Protection Forum to serve as a platform for coordination and consultation with all relevant stakeholders. This was in line with the provisions of Section 4 and Section 5 of the Children’s Act, read with Section 41 of the Constitution within the Intergovernmental Relations Provision. The Children’s Amendment Bill was consulted with members of the National Child Care and Protection Forum and other stakeholders. The Bill was published for public comments in October 2018, inviting members of the pubic to provide comments on the bill. It was published in the Gazette again in February 2019, inviting Members to take note of the intention to introduce the Bill to Parliament.
Due to the change in administration in 2019, the Office of the Chief State Law Adviser had advised that the Bill could not be introduced to Parliament, as the new Cabinet had to be appraised. This advice was welcomed, and the Department needed to resubmit the Bill to the Cabinet of the sixth administration in order to reapprove the Bill for introduction to Parliament. In June 2020, the Cabinet of the sixth administration had reapproved the Bill. It was published for the second time for introduction to Parliament in August 2020. The Bill was processed by the Committee and the Department had the opportunity in October 2020 to analyse clauses of the Bill.
Parliament had published the Bill, inviting comments from members of the public. It was reported that the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) had responded to the publication and presented it to the Portfolio Committee in February. SALGA asserted that it was not consulted during the development of the Bill and that the Bill was never published for public comment before its introduction to Parliament. Nevertheless, it made comments on the version published by Parliament. It was based on the understanding that the Children’s Amendment Bill had to be published for public comments before it was introduced to Parliament. One also needed to understand whether the Department was obliged by the Constitution to consult SALGA as a party during the development of legislation that impacted on municipalities. It was also important to know whether or not SALGA had been consulted by the Department, and if the change in the working of the Bill published for public comments necessitated the re-publication of the Bill.
When looking at these issues to respond to the posed questions, it was important to note that when the Bill was published in the Gazette, it was published on October 29 2018. This served as proof of publication. Its publication would need to allow local government, municipalities and other interested parties the opportunity to make representations. Before October 29 2018, there was no introduction of the Children’s Amendment Bill in Parliament. It was incorrect to assert that the Children’s Amendment Bill was introduced to Parliament without having been published for public comments, as contemplated by the Constitution. The Department had complied with the Constitution in this regard.
The second issue to address was the consultation with SALGA. There were three ways in which SALGA could have been consulted. The first was enshrined in Section 41 of the Constitution, read with Section 5 of the Children’s Act. The second was that SALGA could have been consulted in terms of Section 154. This section spoke directly to municipalities. Thirdly, SALGA could have been consulted in terms of the National Intergovernmental Forum established in terms of Section 9 of the Intergovernmental Relations Framework Act. Careful examination of these possible scenarios was necessary to draw conclusions.
The Department had complied with the legislative process in terms of how the legislation had to be processed and brought before Parliament. The Department suggested that the disputed parts of the Children’s Amendment Bill could be taken off the bill. The disputed parts could be published separately as a second amendment to avoid stalling the process of developing the bill as it would entail a court order.
Adv Nkosinathi Dladla, Chief Director: Legal Services, DSD, indicated that a legal technical team was proposed that would consist of Parliamentary legal advisers and SALGA, which would look at the contested clauses of the Bill and present ways forward.
The Chairperson asked for clarification on the disputed clauses.
Adv Mtshotshisa said that the clauses related to the registration of Early Childhood Development (ECD) “centres.” The scenario in the current legislation spoke to the registration of Early Childhood Development “programmes.” There needed to be a difference between these two types of registrations.
The Chairperson said there was a proclamation being developed by the two departments, and that this needed to be taken into account.
Management of the Temporary Disability Grant
Mr Linton Mchunu, Acting Director General, DSD, presented on the joint collaboration that the Department had conducted with the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), including agencies such as the SAPO, the Post Bank, and SASSA. The subject was an update on the management on the Temporary Disability Grant (TDG) project.
Ms Dianne Dunkerley, Executive Manager: Grants Administration, SASSA, highlighted the key points of progress made since the last presentation was given.
On the contracted doctors, there was a challenge in the Western Cape, which had nine doctors. The number had increased to 18 doctors directly contracted by SASSA and working with doctors from the Department of Health. The Committee was updated on the 10-Point Plan. The plan consisted of the service standard that SASSA should be measured against as a response to the guidance provided by the Committee.
The first issue was improving queue management and the inherent dignity issue of how clients should be treated while waiting in queues. The service standards included:
- Office hours from 7.30 am to 4 p.m.;
- The time spent queuing limited to under an hour;
- Priority to be given to pregnant women, women with babies, the elderly and people with disabilities; and
- One staff member to deal with 24 applications per day.
Staff on rotation was utilised in service points, and volunteers were deployed to assist with queue management and to make sure applicants were wearing masks, and chairs, water and toilets were made available for applicants. The second point was for applicants to be provided with appointments. The standards were set so that bookings would not take longer than 15 minutes. SASSA was still dealing with manual bookings, which would be concluded by March 31. There was also work done on the development of an automated booking system which would be useful in the future.
Securing additional venues for disability grant applications was another point on the 10 Point Plan. In the Western Cape, an additional 11 service points had been secured from the Metro and made available. Four of them were operational. The other seven were being prepared in compliance with health and safety protocols. Service points were also being explored for rural areas in the Western Cape, such as George and Knysna. The Free State used 111 assessment sites and one mobile office. The other provinces had not been as successful in getting operational service points, due to Covid-19 protocols. The approval of overtime had been finalised for disability days; the staff would be on duty from 6 am to 6 pm. The offices would also be open from 8 am to 1 pm on Saturdays for appointments made during the week for disability clients.
SASSA had developed a plan to negotiate with the Provincial Department of Health to assist with doctors. The standard was to have a doctor assessing 40 clients per session, to assess 50 clients per session for file-based assessments, and to allow for a maximum of 80 assessments per session through a backlog management plan. In the Western Cape, orientation had been conducted for 124 doctors who were provided by the provincial Department of Health. They would need to assist with file-based assessments, which would not require the client to go in. Telephonic interviews with clients would be used when doctors did not have sufficient information. In Gauteng folder-based assessments had also been launched. On social relief, a total of 7 912 applications had been processed and the social relief was issued.
The plan of securing additional contracted doctors had been successful in the Western Cape, with at least eight additional doctors being contracted. Two more were being finalised. In the Northern Cape, there were 28 contracted doctors and in all provinces, in addition to the contracted doctors, there were doctors from the Department of Health that were providing assistance. The identification of hotspot areas for the placement of additional doctors applied particularly to the Metro, which had significant pressure of applications or re-application for the TDG. The file-based assessment initiative would help relieve this strain. Because of the success of this plan, there was an intention to roll it out to the other provinces, starting with Gauteng.
On the regular updating of the electronic medical assessment tool, it was used in all provinces to track bookings, applications and the assessments. It helped track no-shows. One of the challenges was that clients who were booked for assessments and had their dates confirmed, did not honour their assessments. This was being dealt with. Despite the focus on the TDG, SASSA would continue with maintaining separate days for other grant types and improving communication with all the stakeholders involved. This would be to make sure that people trying to apply for the other grant types were not crowded out. This was being implemented country wide. An online application process for different grant types would also be made available for clients. There would also be initiatives to share information with national organisations that worked with persons with disabilities.
Progress as of March 2 indicated that over half of the bookings made were processed and resulted in assessments. The deadline for bookings to be finalised was March 31 2021. Staff was made available at assessment sites as a means to narrow the gap between assessments and applications.
Challenges with the contact centre rendered the operation less than effective, with less than 30% of calls being responded to. Email and written enquiries were also not responded to within adequate standards. This could be attributed to the fact that staff members were working in rotation, and that remote working arrangements were challenged by network and connectivity issues.
An interim solution of an outsourced service provider had been evaluated, and an appointment for six months had been made. Their capacity was used for the R350 relief grant, as well as the call centre. Medium-to-long term solutions included:
- Lessons learned from the current outsourced partner;
- The modernisation of the call centre though an upgrade of current technology;
- The strengthening of self-help options, which would limit the need for personal contact;
- The reconsideration of the organisational structure to support call centre operations; and
- The Business Process Reorganisation (BPR) to consider people, process and technology alignment to ensure that the call centre would be able to deliver as it should.
Call centre responsiveness saw some improvement, including the strengthening the call centre with 300 agents and the capacity of the outsourced call centre to deal with 221 545 calls from January to February. The call centre was attending to 343 200 backlogged emails. The in-house call centre and regional help desks had attended to 26 695 cases in January, of which 24 750 had been closed, and 23 776 cases in February, of which 22 832 had been closed.
The SASSA website was not user-friendly, although progress had been made in making the interface easier to navigate. A special visible tab was created on the website for forms only. DG referral forms had been reviewed and were available on the website, as were reconsideration forms. Email addresses for submission of reconsideration requests were provided on the website, and appeal forms would be placed on the website with the email address for the Independent Tribunal in Social Development.
Mr Mchunu stressed the importance of the collaboration effort between SASSA and SAPO.
Mr Mchunu highlighted the importance of addressing queue challenges, in part because they could be potential super-spreaders of Covid-19. The collaboration between the DSD and the DCDT and the relevant agencies was meant to address these challenges.
Ms Totsie Memela-Khambula, Chief Executive Officer, SASSA, said social grant payments were regulated in terms of Regulation 21 of the Social Assistance Act of 2004. As per this regulation, clients would be paid a social grant either in the bank account of the beneficiary if they had one, or by a method determined by the Agency. The Agency had determined the method to be the Post Office. Currently, SASSA deposited funds into the bank accounts of grant recipients. Before the appointment of SAPO, SASSA had utilised Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) to pay social grants. The contract with CPS had been terminated at the end of September 2018. From April1 2018, SAPO was designated as the Payment Method.
When the social relief of distress (SRD) grant was implemented in May 2020, SASSA had experienced a number of challenges when processing payments. A majority of beneficiaries did not load their banking details in time, and many of those who did had failed the bank account verification process. The contract between SASSA and SAPO had been extended to include the payments of these SRD grants. 70% of the clients were paid through SAPO’s services.
SASSA paid over 18 million social grants monthly to around 11.3 million clients, which translated to roughly R15 bn. R10 bn was paid through PostBank and post office arrangements. SASSA had paid around 4 million SRD grant clients through SAPO monthly since June 2020.
Although the collaboration between SASSA and SAPO was successful, challenges were experienced while making payments to clients, including:
- long queues at SAPO branches;
- lack of adherence to Covid-19 safety measures;
- the quality of services to clients at pay-points and SAPO branches;
- fraudulent activities relating to SAPO cards and robberies at branches;
- lack of available of funds at SAPO offices;
- the fact that some post offices were unavailable to pay the SRD grants;
- Issues raised on media platforms, including the replacement of the SASSA/SAPO card;
- the forensic investigation into the fraudulent use of the SASSA/SAPO card; and
- the financial viability of SAPO.
Ms Zukiswa Ntsikeni, Group Chief Executive Officer, SAPO, presented the plan of action to address the above-mentioned challenges.
On the issue of long queues on social grants payment days, mitigation was carried out to stagger the payments of social grants, based on the grant type. This had started in April 2020 and had reduced the number of direct payments through SAPO accounts on the first of each month to payments on three separate days. The use of the SAPO/SASSA card at different pay-points was promoted, resulting in a reduction of people queuing at post offices.
Several measures were implemented to ensure adherence to Covid-19 safety measures, including a SAPO-COVID toolkit for SAPO premises and pay-points since January 2021. A compliance officer was appointed to ensure compliance and manage the number of people who were permitted entry. The use of alternative venues to host larger volumes of people, was also explored. Progress to date showed that there were improvements with social distancing inside the post offices and pay-point venues. The challenge remained outside these premises.
On the long queues at SAPO branches for the SRD grant, staff was deployed from 6.30am to busy premises, volunteers were deployed to manage queues, the vulnerable waiting in the queues were moved to the front, and chairs were placed at SAPO branches to meet social distancing regulations. Improvements on this front were recorded. Other measures were implemented to schedule clients, to notify clients by SMS to go to the post office on scheduled dates and enable clients to choose their preferred branch. Some clients continued to go to SAPO branches outside of the schedule, but the number was relatively small. Clients were given the option to change payment from SAPO to a commercial bank, and were encouraged to open bank accounts with other banks. There was a small numbers of clients who changed their preferred method of payment from SAPO to other banks.
A new measure was piloted to manage the long queues -- by staggering payments based on the last three digits of one’s ID. This was implemented from December 2020 and proved to work in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape. Other provinces would eventually implement the same approach.
On the lack of sufficient cash at post offices, cash flow projections had improved. Clients were turned back at a smaller rate, and demand was being met.
Other interventions to mitigate challenges were meant to address the high rejection of payment transactions due to system failures. This issue was resolved through a cession of the contract from SAPO to PostBank, and the day-to-day operations were also transferred to PostBank. This had resulted in restored stability.
Fraudulent activities related to the SAPO/PostBank card had surged at the beginning of 2019. Clients did not receive their money as a result of bank account changes and the diversion of grant payments. To address this, active monitoring of bank account changes was implemented, along with the verification of bank accounts and card stock control measures. In February 2020, fraudulent transactions conducted with a compromised card had ceased.
The reported losses reported by beneficiaries involved 35 742 cases amounting to approximately R123 million, and 23 559 of cases amounting to approximately R64 million had been reimbursed. The gap was due to applicants not submitting the required forms and affidavits.
Robberies and burglaries had increased at post offices, resulting in delayed payments to clients. This was due to the late or non-arrival of replacement cash at pay-points and post offices. With the implementation of SRD grants, this risk had grown because branches held larger volumes of cash. There was no determination as to where clients would queue, which increased the volume of cash held at branches, and the visibility of large crowds in possession of cash had increased. Electronic security measures would be the solution, with cash protection devices and multiple cash time delay safes.
To address security enhancements, approximately 6 800 guards were deployed at SAPO branches, and 2 500 were deployed at SRD sites in February 2021. Guards would be deployed overnight where cash was held after hours. Coordination with the South African Police Service (SAPS) was a high priority, characterised by daily communication. Over the past quarter, the SAPO/PostBank had collaborated with crime fighting groups and analytical entities to mitigate the crime levels. Over the last sixth months, multiple arrests had been made.
The Cash In Transit (CIT) model worked on the basis that each vehicle serviced around 30 clients daily. Each client transaction was allowed 20 minutes, with 25 minutes given between client addresses. However, any form of delay in either step directly impacted the next client. Long term solutions were explored, including:
- the revision of the CIT contract to reduce the CIT provider’s reliance on the bank, by allowing the provider to supply and back cash;
- the deployment of cash protection devices to ensure the security of large volumes of overnight cash when business started the following morning; and
- the deployment of multiple cash time delay safes to ensure the security of larger volumes of daily cash, reducing reliance on multiple CIT deliveries.
An interim solution would be that CIT providers would deliver cash on the previous afternoon for the next business day.
On card replacement initiatives, PostBank had implemented a number of measures to address challenges of fraud and to mitigate the fraud risk. This measures included securing the card management environment and processes, appointing skilled staff and an executive to manage the key management process, and to reissue and replace all compromised SASSA cards by March 2021. PostBank would take a staggered approach over 18-24 months, but the March 2021 deadline would not be met. Current cards would be valid after March 31 2021.
Ms L Arries (EFF) recalled an article detailing the closure of a post office in eThekwini. She asked if SAPO, as the service provider for SASSA, had any alternatives for clients to access their grants. On the regular reporting by newspapers on robberies occurring at post offices, it was noted that robberies often occurred when social grants had to be paid. This was concerning, because the safety of clients and the money itself would be at risk. What avenues were being explored to ensure that cash-in-transit guards were able to safely transport the money that was used for social grants so that clients could safety receive these grants? Millions of people collect their grants, so it would be vital that the challenges regarding robberies at post offices were addressed. There was also a need for SAPO to release reports detailing the occurrences of these robberies.
How would SASSA’s virtual assessments be conducted? Although SASSA provided assurance in its presentation that it would be able to meet its deadline on the TDG by March 31, she was not fully convinced. She recalled a client who had last received his TDG in December 2020, but was due to see a doctor in May 2021. How was this client supposed to pay for his appointment? The Western Cape’s assessment and its lack of transparency regarding dates and deadlines was also a cause for concern.
Ms B Masango (DA) noted the delays currently occurring with the grants and the recently-introduced online application process at SASSA. A key challenge highlighted during an oversight visit was that the work that was being done online needed to be redone on the system. This had led to a backlog issue, which SASSA management said was a result of this challenge. What was being done to address this? These delays would have dire consequences. She was constantly in contact with officials at SASSA as a medium through which grievances and queries were addressed because the avenues that people normally would use were not fully functional. SASSA’s appeals process was also a cause for concern. Appeals had not been swift enough, leading clients to think that their SRD grant would lapse in April before they could receive assistance from SASSA.
There was a need for communication between the head office and the staff at local offices who were tasked with dealing with clients. Grant applicants would arrive at offices where staff were unaware that there had been changes or improvements, resulting in applicants being turned away. On the issue of fraud at SAPO, she asked about the precise amount money involved during fraudulent activities. Although law enforcement had responded to this issue, resulting in a number of arrests, clients who had previously been defrauded were defrauded for a second time once they had received their grant.
Since the relaxing of South Africa’s Covid-19 restrictions from level three to level one, had SASSA continued working on a 50% rotational basis of staff in the offices? On the platform of SMSs notifying clients that their grants may be collected, there had been an issue that these grants were unavailable due to a lack of money. What happened to these clients?
Ms Masango asked that the implications of the earlier discussion about the early childhood development (ECD) issue and the public hearings and educational sessions be addressed after the meeting was adjourned.
Ms M Sukers (ACDP) asked about the avenues that should be pursued should Members have questions about the Children’s Amendment Bill. Although the legal opinion on the process was discussed in the meeting, the Bill would not be discussed at length. Clarity would be provided after the meeting.
The situation on the ground regarding the collection of grants was dire, namely the long queues and the fact that people had found themselves sleeping in front of offices overnight to be serviced the following morning. In the Western Cape, these issues continued to persist and needed to be dealt with urgently, because they posed a risk to clients’ safety and the overall stability of the country. How did the Department plan to respond to these issues?
The Chairperson requested that Members note specific issues and areas in need of intervention, such as their constituencies and events that may have occurred, in order for the Committee to be an effective oversight mechanism. The Department would be able to respond to context-specific issues and ensure that these concerns and grievances would be adequately addressed.
Ms T Breedt (FF+) agreed with the points raised earlier on the SRD appeals and the issue of the TDG bookings. The amount of time it would take to process these appeals was far too long and urgently required a response from SASSA. The online system was welcomed, as it would mitigate many of the problems faced by staff and clients at local SASSA offices. A specific example could be found at the Pretoria regional office, where an elderly client and a group of six clients receiving their older person’s grants had arrived at the office on Monday. After retrieving their forms from the SASSA offices, they were not informed that Mondays were designated for the elderly to collect their grants. Returning on Wednesday and queuing since four in the morning, they were turned away by security because Wednesdays were designated for the collection of child grants, and were told that they would need to return the following Monday. This event would have to be sent to the Department to be addressed.
The Nigel Post Office in Gauteng was also a cause for concern, with limited personnel working at the queuing stations. Queues extended for three blocks. An Ekurhuleni councillor had called the metro police to help maintain social distancing, but once they left, measures were ignored, because clients were concerned that their spaces in the queue would be taken.
Regarding a lack of staff at post offices, a Free State office had only one staff member working as a teller where five tellers were required. This caused clients who were there for different reasons to use the same queue and caused queues to extend outside in hot weather conditions, especially during January and February. In Newcastle, the state of four post offices was worrying. One office was closed and the other three had challenges with electricity. Of the three offices, one had been without electricity for three weeks and the second had been without electricity for one week due to outstanding electricity accounts that had not been paid. This had resulted in an influx of clients to the third office, which still had challenges with electricity, although still functional. SAPO would need to address these issues efficiently to see these queues being shortened, social distancing being maintained and clients receiving adequate service.
The Chairperson once again emphasised the need for Members to share the specifics of the events occurring in their constituencies with the Portfolio Committee so that the Department could respond to these issues on an ongoing basis, and Members could follow up on the progress of these responses.
Ms A Abrahams (DA) noted that the Western Cape had a significantly lower capacity than the other provinces in the presentation on the TDG. Would the provinces who were meeting their targets have the capacity to assist the Western Cape in meeting its targets? Did SASSA have sufficient staff to utilise the additional facilities once the occupational health and safety protocols were implemented? She asked for details of SASSA’s engagement with the labour unions, because some unions had advised its members to abstain from working. In the Garden Route District Municipality (formerly the Eden District) in the Western Cape, communities were waiting for SASSA to engage with them at a community hall, but SASSA had not shown up.
Additional challenges could be found in a post office in Hammanskraal, North-West. The post office struggles with long queues and a shortage of staff. Could this post office be opened at 6.30 am? The current opening time of 9 am was not efficient. On the mitigation strategies posed by SAPO and SASSA, she asked for clarification on the number of clients that SAPO sought to serve each day. She also asked about the total amount of money that was lost due to robberies and if SAPO or SASSA would be liable for this money. On SAPO’s engagement with the South African Police Service, had there been any development on who these perpetrators were? Were these incidents carried out by syndicates, and were they isolated or connected? There had been a steady decline in the number of post offices available in the country, which had impacted on service delivery. There had been wide-ranging financial problems, such as an inability to pay rent, financial backlogs, broken information communication technology (ICT) equipment, and the potential bankruptcy of SAPO. Was SAPO’s relationship with SASSA viable going forward?
Mr D Stock (ANC) appreciated that the 10-Point Plan presented by SASSA and SAPO clarified existing problems, and indicated which solutions would pave the way for progress. The plan would be constantly evolving as solutions would be implemented and new problems would arise. Although the mitigation strategies and planned interventions were welcomed, the circumstances on the ground should be emphasised. These included long lines in bad weather, a lack of social distancing at offices and the depletion of money. These issues could not be discussed on an annual basis without practical change being achieved. Could SASSA or the Department clarify the persistent root problems confronting SASSA? This would make it easier for SASSA to swiftly develop and implement solutions. How had the Department and SASSA practically applied the theory of change to these challenges, and what had been the outcomes of dealing with these problems? How many SAPO offices throughout the country still did not have the facilities to ensure services underpinned by dignity? This would remedy the situation of clients waiting in adverse weather conditions to be assisted, among other issues such as the lack of ablution facilities. He also asked for a timeline on the installation of these facilities in offices nation-wide.
Ms G Opperman (DA) asked about the TDG assessment sites in the Northern Cape. Clients had to travel large distances to access health facilities, and pay for transport thereto. What assistance was being given to people with disabilities who lived on farms to help them access these facilities? In Loeriesfontein, Northern Cape, more than seven people had missed their opportunity to see the SASSA doctor in December. They were unable to pay for transport because they had not received their grant. Regarding the SRD grant given to clients whose TDGs had lapsed, had all recipients received their SRD grants for the past two months and if not, why not?
The banking fees involved when one collects one’s SASSA grant was also a cause for concern. She highlighted the example of Loeriesfontein, which hosts only Standard Bank. SASSA recipients would have to pay R30 in banking fees, which was problematic because these recipients were already some of the most vulnerable people in society. Could an exemption on banking fees for SASSA grant payments be pursued?
Ms Nonkqubela Jordan-Dyani, Acting Director General, Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, said that in order to ensure that there was a swift response in improving service delivery to South Africans, contact details for the office of the Department would be provided, as well as that of the Parliamentary liaison officer. They would escalate the issues raised and ensure a response from SAPO within 48 hours.
Ms Reneilwe Langa, Acting Chief Executive Officer, SAPO, said that when SAPO took over the payment of social grants in late 2018, the process had been a learning process. This takeover was an intervention against the previous service provider. Improvements were made to the payments of regular grants. The issues raised by Members could be attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic. The easing of lockdown regulations had also contributed to challenges with members of communities in dealing with social distancing. Through collaboration with SASSA and other shareholders, interventions had been implemented. The issues faced by individual post offices should be specific, so that SAPO could respond appropriately.
Ms Ntsikeni said that alternatives to unavailable post offices would be retail merchants, ATMs, and staff members who could drive clients to the nearest ATM and nearby post offices that could accommodate the clients. In some cases, there was proactive communication with clients regarding when certain branches were closed and what alternatives were available.
On robberies and the mitigation strategies, she said that 6 800 security guards were deployed to SAPO branches and 2 500 were deployed to SRD sites with high volumes of clients. Cash-protection devices and multiple safes were also installed in some high-volume branches as a means of prioritisation. These installations should have been completed, but had been slowed down due to the slow cash flow. Because these installations were highly effective and deterred robbers, they would be prioritised going forward.
On the reported losses, burglaries had accounted for a R60 million loss. This was covered by SAPO’s insurance. Robberies accounted for R68 million in losses. The cash availability was initially an issue, because it was not known which branches clients were going to visit. Monthly trends had remedied this, and now cash availability could be projected. There would, however, be isolated incidents where branches would run out of money based on every day challenges and misfortunes such as cash-in-transit companies running late. Through communication, these gaps should be closed. Protection devices at branches would ensure that money could be kept for a longer time.
The issue raised on the Free State branch would require more precise details of the event, because branches needed to follow the clear instruction of utilising separate queues -- one for normal services and the other for SRD clients. Monthly tips were used to remind staff of how they should go about dealing with SRD clients.
The closure of post offices due to a lack of electricity unfortunately did happen. SAPO had tried to enter into payment plans with municipalities who had experienced this, but they had not cooperated. Likewise, landlords did not cooperate. In these instances, alternative venues nearby were being sourced, and where there were none, those branches were prioritised in order to continue service.
The number of clients serviced daily was clarified as being 130 000. The number of ordinary grant clients could be estimated at 600 000. This would indicate that SAPO branches did possess the capacity to deal these clients. However, this would differ when looking at the number of SRD clients. To address the issue of long queues, SAPO had piloted a process in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape, where the last three digits of a client’s ID number were used to schedule the days that they would be serviced. This was informed by the capacities of specific post offices, as well as the rate that tellers would be able to service clients. This was based on the time that it would take to process transactions (two to three minutes), the number of operating hours and the number of tellers available. It should also be noted that post offices did not close while clients were still waiting outside. As long as there was still money, clients would be serviced.
The relationship between SAPO and SASSA was still solid. On the issue of dignity services and the lack of ablution facilities at some offices, service providers would try to mitigate this issue. Cheaper service providers would also be pursued.
On the issue of banking fees, the first transaction was free. The SRD-related transaction was likewise not charged. SASSA paid for these transactions, not the client.
Ms Memela-Khambula responded to the issue of the online application process not being optimal. It had been agreed that the initial process was not optimal, although it was changed to ensure that the processing of the application did not happen at the local office level due to the high volume of clients that needed to be serviced. The online application process had been moved to the district and regional level.
On SRD appeals, there was a large backlog, but the process had improved significantly with the introduction of a call centre, which made sure that the backlog could be dealt with. Staff was available to manage this call centre, but there were challenges in the Western Cape and Gauteng with the labour unions. There was consistent engagement to highlight that even at Level Three, the 50% capacity applied to an office. This did not mean that staff could not work in other environments where they were deployed.
Ms Dunkerley said that the issue around the appeals for the SRD grant was being addressed, with more than approximately 97% of the appeals received for the period of May to October being processed and paid out. However, the appeals from the period of November to January were still being processed, because the closing date of February 28 for those appeals had to pass. The appeals for this period could not be processed until all of them had been received. The appeals received for applications that were declined for the extended period from January to April would be dealt with only after the closing date of May 15. For people still waiting for their social relief assessments, this was an area of concern. Approximately 7 900 had already been completed. This was not enough and required a follow up to understand why the applications were not being processed in time.
Mr Mchunu reiterated that the 10-Point Plan was a living document, and would continue to be addressed and amended. Communication apparatus would need to be improved to ensure that all clients were regularly engaged. The goal would be to provide dignity to all clients and improve their experiences.
Mr Mohodi Tsosane, Regional Executive Manager (Free State), SASSA, said that grant registrations at local offices were used to identify clients who needed to be visited at their home by doctors, instead of travelling to the assessment site. Family members would visit their SASSA office to alert staff of a client who was unable to travel. This information was then recorded for doctors to perform home visits once they completed their work at the assessment site.
Minister Lindiwe Zulu, Department of Social Development, thanked the presenters as well as the Members for their consistency in bringing issues to the Department through the Portfolio Committee. She requested that the Department and SAPO enable Members to know who they should call when they were conducting oversight. This would help in dealing with issues as soon as they occurred, for swift resolution. Often, the Department and agencies did not understand that which underpinned their work. The responses and systems that enabled them to respond to people were vital, as was the notion of dignity.
It was clear that there was a lot that officials needed to interrogate more deeply, because the service level agreements (SLAs) and contracts that existed between SAPO and SASSA needed to indicate ways that would facilitate change. This would enable Members to focus on policy issues and where the changes needed to be made. What sort of ‘business re-engineering’ could be done to address the situation on the ground, as well as the changes that had occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic? There was a need for a future payment model which would assist in preventing clients from sleeping at offices overnight and preventing scams. With looming budget cuts, the implications had to be addressed with transparency to ensure optimal functionality.
Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, reiterated the need to strengthen the ties of collaborative plans between SASSA and SAPO. Being on the ground would be the best way to gauge the areas in need of improvement. The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies had engaged with the provincial Executive Committees, with the Western Cape, Northern Cape and Kwa-Zulu-Natal still being left. It was vital to build relations at local levels -- among clients, wards and traditional leaderships. A more robust approach in raising awareness and providing information was needed to ensure efficiency at the offices.
The Chairperson thanked the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies for its response and the intention to collaborate with the Department of Social Development. Should this endeavour be achieved, people’s lives would greatly improve in 2021. Although the interventions were outlined, there needed to be a clear set of deadlines and a clear plan of action.
Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams clarified that the cash that would run out was not assigned to SASSA grants. She reiterated the need for robust communication to make people aware of any challenges faced at offices.
Ms Lindiwe Ntsabo, Committee Secretariat, Portfolio Committee on Social Development, informed the Committee that the schedule for the public hearings -- March 9, 10 and 19 -- had not been approved. The Committee would need to consider revisiting its programme to reschedule the hearings.
The Chairperson asked the Committee to bring an amended programme which would be approved by Parliament within the deadline of the processing of the bill. Members agreed.
Ms Arries said that there was no assessment doctor in Mossel Bay, and asked the Department to attend to this issue.
Ms J Manganye (ANC) said that the Department should bear with Members who reported on the situations on the ground.
The meeting was adjourned.
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