The South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) Western Cape Regional Office briefed the Committee on the application process, qualifying and assessment criteria for the R350 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant and progress made by the Western Cape in paying out the grant.
With the lifting of the Disaster Regulations, the Covid-19 R350 grant would now be provided for under a new legislative framework within the Social Assistance Act. Beneficiaries of the former Covid-19 grant were now obliged to re-apply for the new SRD grant. SASSA indicated that it had been able to register 9 million people for the new R350 grant dispensation from the 22nd of April. It acknowledged the challenges that arose with digitsation but indicated that innovation and providing services to communities were of high priority.
Members questioned the status of the Agency’s Whatsapp line and raised concern about the accessibility of the online application model for the grant; the impact of the need for re-application on beneficiaries; timelines for appeals and outcomes and the communications strategies utilised by the Agency.
Members were concerned about the limited number of SASSA offices in the province and the number of sites that had closed which left many to travel long distances for assistance. Concern was raised about persons with disabilities who were unable to access disability grants due to the limited number of doctors available for medical assessment appointments.
Chairperson’s opening remarks
The Chairperson welcomed Members to the meeting and also extended a welcome to the officials from the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA), the procedural staff, and other attendees.
The Chairperson noted that SASSA officials were by now familiar with parliamentary procedures and understood why national departments report to provincial governments.
He noted that the provincial government in the Western Cape also had an oversight function that had to be exercised over social security matters. The Chairperson added that the meeting had been convened for appraisal of the developments at the Agency, and to clarify certain issues.
He classed it as a fact-finding mission that assisted the Committee with the formulation of recommendations that were normally forwarded to the relevant government departments for attention and action.
He explained that the meeting had not been convened to “chastise” the SASSA but to enhance and support that Agency’s mandate. The Chairperson wanted to establish how many residents from the Western Cape had applied for the R350 grant.
Presentation by South African Social Security Agency (SASSA)
Mr Sibusiso Nhlangothi, General Manager: Core Business, SASSA Western Cape and Mr Abraham Mahlangu, Chief Information Officer: SASSA/Acting Regional Executive Manager: Western Cape, briefed the Committee on the application process, qualifying and assessment criteria for the R350 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) Grant, as well as progress made by the Western Cape Regional SASSA in paying out the Grant.
The Covid-19 R350 grant was initially introduced in May 2020 under the Covid-19 national state of disaster regulations. With the lifting of the disaster regulations, the grant will now be provided under a new legislative framework within the Social Assistance Act. Beneficiaries of the former Covid-19 grant are now obliged to re-apply for the new SRD (R350) grant. Regulations in this regard were published in the Government Gazette during April 2022.
The presentation outlined the legislation and qualifying requirements and the application process.
During March 2022, the last month of Covid 19 SRD grant there were 1 289 767 recipients in the Western Cape Province. This represented 8% of the recipients in the country. All the recipients have to re-apply for the new SRD grant. The applications only commenced on 23 April 2022 and more than 9.7 million clients already applied. SASSA received more applications in the first week of this grant than in the first week of reapplications in August 2021
The Committee was also briefed on the Child Support Grant (CSG) Top-up. There was a top-up of R240 to the current grant of R480. The extended payment of the CSG, eligibility criteria and application process were detailed. The CSG Top-Up is not a new grant but builds on the CSG, hence the rules and the procedures for the CSG will continue to be followed.
See presentation for further details
Mr R Mackenzie (DA) expressed concern that Mr Mahlangu was still acting in the position in the Western Cape, whilst he was already the Agency’s Chief Information Officer (CIO).
He also recalled that recently several postal offices had been closed. In the case of Retreat, violence and gangsterism had forced the closure of this important service delivery nodal point. It was, common knowledge, that many South Africans utilised the postal office to access government services and to apply for social grants. He asked what the modus operandi was in these circumstances.
He raised concern about the time period for outcomes on social grant applications. On the appeals period, he questioned how long it took and whether people were required to present themselves in person for the appeals procedures.
He also wanted to ascertain what happened in the case where someone had been approved for the SRD grant but had not yet received that grant. He asked what the communication strategies with regards to this matter were. By when would the WhatsApp line widely published in the media be functional?
He detailed the case of Mr William Gelant whose grant had been discontinued in March 2022 with a proviso that he had to reapply. In this instance, Mr Gelant was disabled and diabetic with both his legs amputated. To compound matters, he had only been able to secure a doctor's appointment in August 2022. Mr Mackenzie wondered what would happen in the interim six to seven months.
On the Committee's recent oversight visit to the Agency's regional office in Paarl, he said that Members had engaged with a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) by the name of Stellcare. Stellcare worked in the historically disadvantaged communities of Cloetesville, Idasvallei, the farms in the surrounding areas, and Kayamandi.
During these deliberations, Members had been informed that transportation, especially in the rural far-flung areas of the province, remained a challenge for grant recipients and some ended up spending exorbitant amounts on transport to collect a R350 grant. He said that this remained untenable and called on the Agency to provide clarity on this matter. He noted that these challenges should be considered national challenges as he was quite sure that the same could apply to the Eastern Cape and Kwazulu-Natal.
He also wanted to establish whether the Agency had some sort of mobile service that brought the service to communities, especially in instances where citizens were not able to purchase data or could not utilise digital platforms. He questioned what the recourse in situations like these would be.
As winter was approaching and grant recipients normally queued from the wee hours of the morning and given that it was currently raining in the Western Cape, would the officials provide an explanation or clarification as to how the Agency had resolved to intervene with measures that enabled a user-friendly service and atmosphere?
On queue management, he asked when SASSA would begin using the latest available technologies to avoid the “monetisation” of queuing.
Mr Mahlangu on how long he would remain in an acting position said that senior management in the Province was stable and capable and there was no lack of business continuity. Business Process Re-Engineering was underway but vacancies would be filled. The filling of the post was, however, being prioritised.
On the closure of South African Post Office branches, he said the Agency had tried its best to divert customers through communication to the nearest available points. SASSA was willing to take services to the people but was plagued by social ills that it could not deal with alone. Some of his colleagues had been mugged and physically harmed. The expansion of mobile services was affected by SASSA’s inability to protect its crew. Nyanga and Gugulethu were detailed as examples of high-risk areas where catchment areas had to be closed. He detailed a report where one office was forced to close due to an influx of people and officials were held hostage. He hoped this oversight exercise would assist in taking services to the people.
On using technology including queue management, he said that nationally, a system had been developed to implement a queue facilitation management system that was currently being piloted in the Gauteng province. This management system enabled queries and applications to be sorted and directed to the specific units within the Agency to give effect to the specific codes for the different line functions that had been created. He mentioned that proof of grant recipient status also fell under this.
The Agency had envisaged launching the programme nationally with two pilot sites chosen in each of the remaining eight provinces. He stressed that the Agency remained committed to fully implementing all of these systems within the current financial year as it had been costed and budgeted for, it also had been included in the Agency’s Annual Performance Plan and the Operational Performance Plan. Digitalisation remained an important component for the Western Cape and the Province had been the pioneer for digitisation during the launch of the Temporary Disability Grant online booking system.
On data-related challenges, he said that the Agency had teamed up with mobile companies to resolve issues. The cost of data could not simply be subsidised, zero-rating had however assisted. These were the attempts to bring services to the people but this was not without challenges as indicated.
On venues, he said that some were available but were not compliant with Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) standards but attempts were being made to re-open service points considering the safety of officials and customers as well. Partnerships were being sought to deal with issues related to social ills.
Mr Nhlangothi, on appeals, said that the function had been taken away from SASSA and was dealt with by an independent tribunal at the Department of Social Development (DSD). SASSA only communicated the outcome of the process to the client. SASSA was not certain about the turn-around time considering the high number of applications and appeals.
Appeals could only be lodged on the DSD’s website, there was no other alternative for the SRD. The Agency could only guide clients on the online process.
On the Whatsapp channel, he asked that Mr Mahlangu comment.
Mr Mahlangu said that the Whatsapp channel had not gone live on 22 April due to technical issues but this would be dealt with by June. The utilisation of a chatbot had previously reduced pressure whereby a high number of queries could be dealt with on the platform. Cloud computing had greatly assisted in addressing high volumes of queries.
Mr Nhlangothi, on the contact number for appeals, said that the application status could only be viewed on three channels: online on the SRD website; Whatsapp call or message on 082 046 8553, or the SASSA toll-free number 0800 601 011.
On application times, he said that the Western Cape (WC) was the only region where a hybrid model was used for doctors, The Disability Grant was divided into permanent and temporary grants. The permanent grant could be reviewed after five years but the temporary grant lapsed after six months and the client had to return to the doctor. The Department of Health (DOH)’s doctors were used but SASSA contracted doctors were also appointed as well thus it was a hybrid model.
The challenge was that when the SASSA contracted doctors were appointed most did not want to go to rural areas. With the emergence of Covid-19, DOH doctor numbers were reduced which limited resources. SASSA was, however, trying its level best to ensure assessments were done in 30 days by doctors after booking. National Treasury had issued an instruction that there be a hold on procurement which affected the process of appointing new doctors which had begun. Once National Treasury gave the go-ahead, SASSA would go out on tender to appoint more doctors.
On the general comments by Mr Mackenzie about the lack of user-friendly services, he pointed out that it was linked to the number of fixed offices the Agency had. Of the nine provinces, the Western Cape had the least fixed offices posting a mere 16 offices that had to service millions of social grant beneficiaries. The other eight provinces had sufficient fixed offices.
He conceded that the lack of a significant footprint in the Western Cape had impacted service delivery. Since the onset of Covid-19 many of the mobile offices that the Agency previously utilised such as community halls could not be used as a result of Covid-19 restrictions and protocols. Many Western Cape local government authorities had also then subsequently changed the terms of reference.
He then added that in 2015, he had left the province to take up another position within the Agency in Johannesburg and had only recently returned to the WC. At the time when he left all, service stations and mobile stations, especially in the Athlone regions had been discontinued due to gangsterism. This, he considered remained a societal issue and could not be resolved by one entity alone. A collaborative effort was required.
He admitted that the officials of the Agency had expressed their opposition to working in areas like the Cape Flats and other areas plagued by gangsterism and violence as they feared losing their lives in the process.
On the service stations in Stellenbosch, he indicated that he would follow up on the status of sites.
He conceded that mobility and transportation issues remained a serious challenge but would be addressed together with the concerns raised about the oncoming winter and the effects that the weather might have on grant recipients who utilised mobile service points.
Mr Mackenzie requested clarity on the Whatsapp line as Mr Mahlanglu had indicated that the service would be live in June but Mr Nhlangothi had indicated that Whatsapp could be utilised for appeals.
Mr Nhlangothi responded that in the meantime the website and the toll-free number could be used.
Mr Mackenzie requested further clarity on whether the entire appeals process took place online and if so what would then happen to those people that did not have access to the internet.
Mr Nhlangothi responded that the entire process was online but this was how the process had been introduced by the decision makers.
Mr Mahlangu said that most service delivery actions, especially face-to-face service delivery actions, faced challenges but digitisation introduced new challenges. Ordinarily, South Africans would be required to appear physically before an officer of the Agency but the rules had been relaxed due to Covid-19.
The Agency had however been able to register 9 million applications during lockdown levels 5, 4 and 3 in terms of the SRD grant. Technology and innovation had to be attended to constantly, especially when a new system was introduced, and at some stage, the Minister could be engaged to review some of the guidelines around access to these grants i.e. other measures where South Africans do not have access to the internet and or data to review specifically around that R350 dispensation.
He conceded the point on access to the internet for rural communities and said that residents who stayed in rural areas had in most cases been assisted by members of the community to register online and who did so quite successfully.
One of the challenges with an ad-hoc grant dispensation was that it could be temporary and the guidelines were also interim. Since there now had been a decision made to make the Relief Grant permanent, new permanent guidelines should be drafted for it to be effectively administered.
He also announced that the Agency had been able to register 9 million people for the new R350 Grant dispensation from 22 April until now. Like with all procedures, it was not absolute and government would amend as the process unfolds and it learns lessons. This would then also affect how the Agency would review the services and the lack of access that some residents might have to the system.
Mr G Brinkhuis (Al Jama-ah) noted that the Relief Grant had been set at R350 and he wondered whether the government had factored in increased fuel and food prices and transport fees when it had made this determination.
Mr Nhlangothi noted South Africa’s resources remained limited and that R350 was the minimum amount government could budget per applicant with a basic line having been set at R585 as a breadline figure. As already mentioned, unfortunately, due to resource constraints government could not raise the figure and this remained the only viable solution at the moment. The Agency conceded that could not possibly be sufficient yet this was the policy and it would be implemented.
Ms R Windvogel(ANC) said that she was concerned about the lowering of the income threshold. The grant had to lay a solid basis for the Basic Income Grant therefore the lowering of the threshold was cause for concern. On the insufficient means, she requested the clarity on the formula used to make the determination.
On the Temporary Employer-Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) and the South African Revenue Service (SARS) mentioned in the presentation, she said that requirements had caused much consternation for the residents in her constituency, which was a rural one, where people were being sent from pillar to post. This meant that the Agency had to urgently deal with this matter especially since rural residents were being disadvantaged in this process due to a lack of access to information. Reasons for rejections were not clear therefore communication was important.
On the verification checks conducted by the Agency through other government departments and entities such as the SARS and the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), she said that some still had names on its systems that should have been removed a long time ago.
She expressed her happiness with the Agency appearing before the Committee as this allowed for clarification on very personal matters such as what the Agency intended to do about these anomalies that had been experienced by applicants.
She referred to a comment that the official had made about “Taking service delivery to our people” however the Agency should ask whether their service to citizens had been consistent with the actual experience by applicants in accessing that service.
She also decried the irrational branch location choices of the Agency as rural areas did not have branches.
Mr Mahlangu replied that many people had argued that economically it had made sense to adjust the threshold of the relief upwards however the mandate of the Agency was not to make policy just to implement policy.
The Committee, as a legislative arm of the province, had the right to take up this matter through the required avenues. The threshold for the formerly disadvantaged had been largely based on what government could afford. He reiterated that the onus on the orders remained on government to set policy. He conceded the point on the current SRD Grant being seen as the basis for a Universal Income Grant. Discussions on a threshold for such a grant had not yet been established.
On the online platforms and databases, he said that the first time application programme allowed for an interface with other government systems such as UIF, Home Affairs and Persal and that the information that these entities provided to SASSA had always been regarded as being true and valid given that these are the official sources for this type of information.
The onus then should be on required agencies that bared responsibility for that information. Unfortunately, there was nothing that the Agency could do about the information it received from these agencies, it remained incumbent on the applicants to engage with the relevant government entity to rectify discrepancies. It had widely been accepted that IRP5 forms from SARS remained as valid proof of some kind of income. He said that the Agency noted that there had been some instances of inconsistencies.
The Agency, as a mitigated risk, decided to have continuous real-time updates on the status of particular applicants which are being done monthly.
Mr Nhlangothi noted that the issues that Members had raised about the related cost associated with accessing the grant, such as transportation fees also remained a concern of the Agency, in the southern Western Cape, especially about Beaufort West in relation to Laingsburg and Middelburg not having any such offices. Securing accommodation for officials would incur additional financial resources therefore officials had to travel long distances which affected their delivery of services. He acknowledged how historical inequalities affected office locations. It remained an untenable situation that the Agency understood. He also recalled Mossel Bay, George and Heidelberg were without any dedicated SASSA offices.
Travelling to communities was a challenge, however, in the meantime, the Agency utilised trucks to go to the various communities to deliver services. He once again reiterated that the Agency shared the frustrations echoed by Members and therefore Members as legislative entities had to assist officials in this regard as well.
Ms W Philander (DA) welcomed the presentation and extended thanks to the officials for having come so far to brief the Committee
Ms Philander said that she hoped that the officials would be able to clarify certain specifics to the Members, especially on the statistics concerning the Western Cape. What had the impact been for the recent round of applications since the changes considering the legislative changes following the end of the State of Disaster? The spokesperson of the Agency had said that applicants would not be impacted negatively and would not experience any challenges with the application process yet this sentiment could not be shared by Members as she had understood it.
Ms Philander indicated that many people have been left without grants after reapplication was required and wondered what implications this had for the Western Cape. The Member asked why the Agency had to redo the entire process in its current form. Could the Agency not have done due diligence by making the process easier using an innovative approach? Access to the system was important
On the WhatsApp channel, she questioned the necessity of publicising a channel that could not be utilised by vulnerable and disadvantaged South Africans as it was not functional. The process had to be made easier on the applicant.
She recalled that the presentation had indicated that the total of recipients in the WC amounted to 8% of the national total with almost 10 million applicants which indicated the great need for the Grant. What innovative measures was SASSA considering to ensure people had access to the Grant?
Mr Mahlangu said that the website was zero-rated thus it remained a free access website with no cost related. He reiterated once again that it was a new process and that the Agency endeavoured to adjust to the new reality. It had learned many lessons and would continue to try and improve its service to the communities.
On the need for the SRD, he indicated that there was quite an uptake with a severe impact in terms of the exponential rise in applications. Innovation remained a key component of the Agency’s priorities and the grant would now be regularised and the respective regulations amended by the Minister.
Mr Nhlangothi stated that the grant had been a response to Covid-19 and that the Agency was aware of shortcomings that arose in its implementation. The grant, by its nature, targeted the youth, who were technically savvy and could use online channels. 10 million applicants meant that the platforms were functional.
On the Whatsapp platform, it would be operational soon but there needed to be more than one channel.
Mr Mahlangu agreed that the segment which the grant was targeted for were youth and mobile based on the statistics and profiling done. The uptake was proof that the platforms were functional. The functionality of the Whatsapp line was being prioritised. The prevalence of cell phones was at 98% in the country. The Agency was trying its best whilst processes were being normalised.
Ms N Bakubaku-Vos (ANC) appreciated the work done by SASSA despite difficulties. She understood that there was a shortage of halls where shortages could be rendered. She acknowledged that the Agency had tried to meet with the Councillors and the Municipality in Stellenbosch on the matter. The Committee would discuss the matter further. Were applicants made aware that they could apply for reassessment? Was this advertised?
She understood that the youth was targeted but not all could utilise technologies, especially in the rural areas. She requested a breakdown of the figures on how many beneficiaries would lose access due to the new income threshold. What were the figures for the WC during the new round of applications?
Mr Mahlangu thanked the Member for acknowledging the difficulties the Agency experienced. The support to assist the agency in getting relief to persons was welcomed. Statistics could be provided in a written response. The statistics for the current round of applications could be communicated after a month.
The Chairperson welcomed the submission.
Ms Windvogel on the applications said that she was informed that one phone could only make five applications. Considering that many of the Agency's clients did not have access to phones, she asked that the Agency investigate the matter of five applications per phone.
On application turnaround times, she asked how long after approval would the applicant receive payment. There had to be a turn-around time on appeals and cited examples where the police had to be called to handle persons upset about appeals at post offices. These matters had to be considered. Were there any statistics on how many persons would no longer benefit due to the new income threshold?
Mr Mackenzie requested clarity on the disability grant, he questioned what would happen to persons like Mr Gelant whose grants had lapsed and had to wait for doctor’s appointments.
On Mitchells Plain offices, he requested a timeline of office upgrades as the project was included in the Annual Report.
On the SASSA offices, he said that the previous service point at Stellcare had been utilised for more than 20 years and asked why this had stopped.
He questioned if there was a communication method for persons who had been approved but not yet received their funds.
On the number of offices in the WC, he asked when there would be an increase in the number offices and if there was a timeline for this.
On staffing, he questioned how staff were allocated to ensure efficiency considering the long driving distances required. Petrol was expensive, had accommodation been considered?
Were there temporary measures such as food parcels for those waiting for doctor's appointments? He questioned if there were processes to assist those who could not leave their homes.
Had the Department considered a policy framework that made provision for persons that were visibly disabled and waiting for assistance from doctors?
Mr Mahlangu said that permutations for service delivery had to be reconsidered.
On Mitchells Plain, he said that as SASSA did not own the premises, there had been a process to request what modifications could be done. In certain cases where there had to be procurement of office accommodation, the Agency was reliant on the National Department of Public Works. The Agency also faced challenges with amending the lease agreements with the landlords for the renovations. Thus lengthy negotiations were required.
On the two or three sites that were closed in Mitchells Plain, he indicated that this was due to social ills. The Agency was considering the time it would take to procure additional space however the timelines would be difficult to provide instantly. A response would be given after certainty on the agreement in terms of what could be done physically in the space after engagement with the current landlord. It was not easy to procure office space in the WC and detailed an example of difficulty experienced in Gugulethu. Once negotiations with the current landlord in Mitchells Plain were complete, the outcome would then be provided to the Committee as a status update.
On the communication of application outcomes, he mentioned how constantly SMS communication had been used along with the channel through which the applicants used to apply was utilised to give feedback to applicants.
On Mr Mackenzie’s comments about disabled persons, he said that the comments were noted and suggestions welcomed.
Mr Nhlangothi said that he believed Mr Mahlangu noted the suggestion regarding five applications per phone.
On the number of persons that had not benefited since the new criteria had been introduced, he said that the Agency did not yet have any statistics but would be able to provide this at a later stage.
On persons waiting for disability grants, he said that food parcels had been phased out by the Agency and replaced with three SRD grants considering applicants and those experiencing disaster or with disabilities.
He would look into Mr Gelant’s case, as a matter that had arisen in the deliberations. In this instance the person is disabled and this could easily be verified, the policy would have to be checked to see compliance.
On the closed Stellcare service point, he said that the main reason for the closure of offices was due to the emergence of Covid-19. He would follow up on this specific case but indicated that many offices were not reopened due to not meeting OHS standards.
Mr Mackenzie questioned how the policy process could be reviewed to address the case of visibly disabled persons who needed assistance. How could SASSA assist persons who were waiting for doctor’s visits due to the backlog?
Mr Mahlangu responded that the matter would be taken up.
Ms Bakubaku-Vos emphasised the case of Stellenbosch and said that there was a lack of offices in Paarl and the surrounding areas.
Ms Bettie Nieuwoudt, Stellcare, said that there had been a very good working relationship with SASSA Paarl previously. People in the Stellenbosch area suffered due to a lack of transport. She detailed how she had taken a taxi filled with foster parents to apply for grants. Stellcare had been security cleared and declared as the best premise in the WC yet the facilities were not utilised due to lengthy processes for MOUs. SASSA expected to have access to the premises free of charge but this was not possible as it was an NGO. It was still open to working with SASSA and had requested training to help communities with online applications but this had not materialised.
Mr Mahlangu said that NGOs should not lose hope in the partnership. He explained that government supply chain processes affected matters and irregular expenditure had to be avoided. He expressed willingness to meet with the organisation and determine how it could be assisted within the current frameworks.
The Chairperson welcomed the progress made in the meeting, as the social security regime was about the needy and not about politicians or officials. R350 meant a lot to the millions destitute in SA.
He noted SASSA's sterling work although there would always be challenges. He wished SASSA well in its endeavours.
He adjourned the meeting for a 15-minute break.
Adoption of Minutes
The Standing Committee considered and adopted the draft minutes of 5 April 2022.
The meeting was adjourned.
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