In this virtual meeting, the Committee was briefed by officials from the Department of Social Development (DSD) and the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA), regarding the new regulations on the payment of the Social Relief Distress (SRD) grant and other social grants.
The Minister of Social Development said that the lifting of the National State of Disaster (NSoD) required the migration of the SRD provisions from the Disaster Management Act (DMA) to the Social Assistance Act (SAA), which had already made provision for social relief of distress. As the grant was shifted from the DMA to the SSA, all existing applications were required to reapply for the grant. The department anticipates the number of approved applicants to stand at 10.9 million in the first two months, however, with an allocation of R44 billion from the National Treasury, it will only be able to provide for 10.5 million recipients.
She indicated that while the R350 is an important lifeline for beneficiaries, the department is conscious that it is not enough on its own to provide a decent life for people. For this reason, the department will look to intensify its efforts, jointly with other stakeholders, to link grant recipients with jobs and other economic opportunities.
Officials from the DSD indicated that the SRD grant can only be applied for through digital application channels, which include a WhatsApp Channel, the online website and the SASSA Mobile Application (which is still in development and will be introduced gradually during the course of the year).
The Committee heard that some beneficiaries have not been paid since the approval of their grants in April. This was due to the department’s work to finalise a functional verification process and to ensure all systems are in place (which would also assist the Auditor-General with the monitoring of the application process). As both objectives are complete, the department anticipates processing the payments to all grant recipients as soon as possible. As such, those who applied in April will be paid from that month.
The Committee was concerned about how other poor and unemployed individuals not covered in the allocation would be assisted by the DSD.
Members questioned how people living in rural areas would be able to apply for the grant, as many do not have access to smartphones.
Members asked how SASSA will verify if an applicant receives financial assistance from their family and if additional staff will be appointed to monitor this.
Members asked how many criminal cases the department has reported regarding fraudulent SRD grant applications.
The Chairperson, noting youth month, called for the Committee and the rest of society to assist the unemployed youth in the country.
She then requested a mover for the adoption of the agenda as proposed.
Mr D Stock (ANC) moved for the adoption of the agenda as proposed.
Ms A Abrahams (DA) seconded the adoption of the agenda as proposed.
Introductory remarks by the Minister
Ms Lindiwe Zulu, Minister of Social Development, indicated that the Social Relief Distress (SRD) grant has assisted many people in the country. While the department would continue to motivate for the protection of citizens suffering from poverty and unemployment, it was mindful of the impact that the country’s limited resources will have on its efforts. She requested that the public also take note of the significant negative impact the conflict in Ukraine has had on South Africa’s economy.
The lifting of the National State of Disaster (NSoD) necessitated the migration of the SRD provisions from the Disaster Management Act (DMA) to the Social Assistance Act (SAA, which had already made provision for social relief of distress. Following this, applications for the SRD under the DMA were closed on 31 March 2022 and a new application portal to apply for the third iteration of the grant was made available online on the SASSA website at 12 am, 28 April 2022. As the grant is provided under a new legislation regime, those in need of the grant would need to reapply for it. The department, she added, has retained the previously used digital platform for its applications.
The SRD regulations that would be presented, she said, are applicable to the third iteration of the grant. She explained that the department had to strengthen its fraud prevention systems to deter those who do not qualify for the grant from applying and to ensure that all intended beneficiaries receive the grant. To accomplish this, the department has partnered with a number of registered financial institutions that will use their technologies to validate the beneficiaries of the grant.
To ensure that people living in remote areas are provided access to the online application and are no longer reliant on receiving assistance from SASSA officials, the department has used technologies that are available to all.
She informed the Committee that in the previous iteration of the grant, SASSA approved 10.9 million applications (with 1 million appeals still to be considered) and paid out R30 billion. She raised her concern regarding the difficulties in concluding the appeals and assured the Committee that the department will look to fast-track the process.
Additional qualifying and assessment criteria, in line with the R44 billion allocation the department has received, have been introduced. This allocation, she mentioned, would cover 10.5 million beneficiaries, as the department did not have enough funds to include more unemployed persons. Each application will be under consideration every month to ensure that the applicant meets the requirements. Furthermore, every three months the client will have to confirm if they are in need of the grant. Any individual aggrieved with SASSA’s decision to decline the grant has the right to appeal it. All appeals will be handled by an Independent Tribunal for Social Assistance (ITSA), in line with the amendments to the SAA, which came into effect on 1 June 2022.
With the assistance of SASSA, the department is working to improve its systems, so that all outstanding payments for the previous iteration of the grant are concluded. She highlighted that the department is close to finalising contracts with banks so that it can complete the means test for applications, which will assist in making payments.
She indicated that while the R350 is an important lifeline for beneficiaries, the department is conscious that it is not enough on its own to provide a decent life for people. For this reason, the department will look to intensify its efforts, jointly with other stakeholders, to link grant recipients with jobs and other economic opportunities. She added that the department is also working with the Presidency, the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC), and other social partners, to finalise the policy proposals on the Basic Income Grant (BIG), which will provide ongoing support once the SRD grant expires next year.
Briefing by the DSD on Covid-19 SRD regulations and implementation
Mr Linton Mchunu, Acting Director-General, DSD, Mr Brenton van Vrede, Chief Director: Social Assistance, DSD, Ms Brenda Sibeko, and DDG: Comprehensive Social Security, DSD, briefed the Committee on the new regulations regarding the payment of the SRD grant and other social grants.
Mr Mchunu indicated that due to the lifting of the NSoD, the legal framework for the provision of the extended SRD grant had to be changed. Thus, the grant was brought in under the SSA. The amended regulations were published on 22 April 2022 and the application channels for the SRD grant were opened on 23 April. As the grant was shifted from the DMA to the SSA, all existing applications were required to reapply for the grant. The department anticipates the number of approved applicants to stand at 10.9 million in the first two months, however, with an allocation of R44 billion, it will only be able to provide for 10.5 million recipients.
Ms Sibeko mentioned that the grant can only be applied for through digital application channels, which include a WhatsApp Channel, the online website, and the SASSA Mobile Application (which is still in development and will be introduced gradually during the course of the year). A new screening questionnaire has been introduced to improve the screening of applicants, which includes providing personal information such as an ID number, educational, employment, and banking details. New questions include when the client last worked and whether the client is receiving other forms of income.
She added that the applications will be validated monthly through digital channels, these include the national population register; the South African Revenue Services; banks; and the Unemployment Insurance Fund. Clients will be required to confirm every three months whether or not they still require the grant. This, he added, will encourage more active engagement between SASSA and the client; and it defaults the client to not requiring the grant if they do not re-engage every three months.
Mr Van Vrede explained that the South African Post Office (SAPO) has been struggling to render services at their branches and at cash pay points, which has affected 5% of SASSA’s clients. The agency is looking at risk mitigation strategies to limit the risk posed by SAPO’s challenges.
The Chairperson opened the floor for discussion.
Ms L Arries (EFF) highlighted that at certain Pick ‘n Pay outlets elderly people were made to wait for long hours for the payment of their grants, due to a technical problem. As such, she asked how well the system of utilising outlets to disburse social grants was functioning.
She then posed a series of questions. One, she asked if SASSA’s budget is sufficient to cover all beneficiaries and what measures have been put in place to cover people who only slightly make more than the R624 poverty line.
Two, she asked what measures have been put in place to ensure beneficiaries who live in rural areas without retail outlets have access to their social grant.
Three, she asked what SASSA’s plan is to address the lack of doctors to conduct disability assessments at the Pacaltsdorp Community Health Clinic (PCHC) because, without an assessment, individuals are unable to apply for the Temporary Disability Grant (TDG).
Four, she asked how SASSA will verify if an applicant receives financial assistance from their family and if additional staff will be appointed to monitor this.
Five, she asked how the department plans to accommodate the other 2.9 million unemployed people, as the SRD grant allocation only covers 10.5 million of the 13.4 million unemployed persons. In addition, she asked how many school-going 18-year-olds are currently receiving the SRD grant.
Six, she requested that the Minister submit a progress report on the implementation of the SRD grants.
Seven, she asked for the terms of the agreement between SAPO and the department regarding the disbursement of all other social grants excluding the SRD.
Eight, she asked what plans are in place to ensure that mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, are classified as permanent disabilities.
Ms Abrahams suggested that in the next scheduled meeting the department should allow the Committee to interface with its online application platform, to assess its user-friendliness.
She then asked several questions. One, she asked how SASSA and the department would ensure that vulnerable applicants are able to access the online application. She feared that they could potentially be exploited by third parties who might request compensation for applying on their behalf. Furthermore, the applicants would be sharing their confidential information and would not be protected by the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), as they would have had they applied online on their own.
Two, she asked if one cell phone can be used to apply for different individuals, as a household may only have access to one phone.
Three, she asked how SASSA planned to assist beneficiaries without bank accounts. Additionally, she asked whether all parts of the form should be filled out before one can complete their application. Further, she asked if an applicant can sign the consent form online.
Four, she asked why applicants are asked for their educational details. Had this been for data recording purposes?
Five, she asked SASSA to verify the allegations that it has asked for the ID numbers of applicants’ parents.
Six, she asked how SASSA would apply its requirement that anyone who receives R350 in financial support from a family member will be excluded from the SRD grant. In addition, she asked whether cash wallet payments would disqualify young people from receiving the grant.
Seven, she asked how practical SASSA’s requirement to communicate with a client every three months is and whether the agency had the capacity to do so.
Eight, she asked what would happen to individuals who apply for the SRD grant one month prior to the end of their Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) contract, as SASSA requires that an individual be unemployed when applying for the grant.
Nine, she asked if the R44 billion allocation also covers the running of the ITSA as well as bank fees and charges. If not, she asked where those fees would be deducted from.
Ten, she asked for clarity on whether only persons between the ages of 18-60 qualify for the grant (as stated in Section 2(2c) of the SSA regulations) or 18 and above (as indicated in the presentation).
Eleven, she asked if clients will be entitled to back-pay from the date of their application, within 90 days of the appeal, or only at the end of the tribunal.
She mentioned that all other questions will be sent to the department in writing.
Ms G Opperman (DA) indicated that her questions would include those from members of the public. First, she asked why several people’s applications still showed that they are pending after re-application.
Two, she asked how many criminal cases the department has reported regarding fraudulent SRD grant applications.
Three, she asked why the department had ended its agreement to disburse the SRD grant through SAPO, as people in rural areas without retail outlets nearby would struggle to access their grant. Further, she asked that the department explain the new legislative regime of the SRD grant in greater detail.
Four, she asked why the department could not allow SRD grant recipients to access them on any date in the month (currently they are only permitted to do so on specified dates).
Five, she asked how employment and educational means tests will assist poor applicants.
Six, she asked how long the department anticipates the agreement with the banks to assist with the validation of applications will take.
Seven, she asked if a grant would automatically lapse if the client did not engage with SASSA every third month.
Eight, she asked how many females would be excluded from the new qualifying criteria for the SRD grant.
Nine, she asked how SASSA will mitigate against the 5% at-risk clients who only utilise SAPO and not the National Payment Systems.
Ms P Marais (EFF) asked three questions. One, she asked why many youths from her constituency (in Bloemfontein) had not received their SRD grant since 2020.
Two, she asked what assistance families that have taken in children who have been abused can receive from SASSA.
Three, she asked if SASSA had done a survey to ensure that all retail outlets used are located nearby beneficiaries.
Mr Stock appreciated the remarks made by the Minister, as he felt that they had comprehensively contextualised the SRD regulations and confirmed that the department is in discussions on the BIG. He was also pleased with the presentation, as it had made clear to the Committee how people can apply for the SRD grant, as well as the department’s limited budget. However, he noted that the implementation of the biometric system had not been touched on in the presentation.
He added that the strengthening of the regulations has eased the Committee’s concerns regarding possible fraud and corruption in the system. He called for the department to improve where it can.
Ms B Masango (DA) asked when SASSA’s agreement with SAPO for the latter to distribute SRD grants would expire.
Mr Van Vrede, referring to the readiness of the system, said that the regulations form part of the government’s realisation of the benefits provided by the SRD grant to the rest of society. Whilst the department was aware that the system has encountered several challenges, it was pleased that it was able to process 15 million applications and pay out 10.9 million people, in a short space of time. The department has also had to largely rely on a digital system, unlike with other grants.
He highlighted that the department has requested that the budget for the SRD grant be increased on a year-on-year basis. However, it has also stressed that more funds need to be allocated for the creation of more employment programmes, to reduce the number of people requiring the grant. He further explained that providing a social security system for a working-age population is different from that for children or someone retiring. Thus, the department needs to build new systems to support the working-age population.
Regarding the practicality of the requirement to communicate with SASSA every three months, he mentioned that if the process did not work, then the department would remove it. The department will also check with the Department of Employment and Labour on whether someone has received a job. To build a comprehensive support system, the DSD will refer beneficiaries to EPWP and other job opportunities.
He indicated that the department has not tracked the number of 18-year-olds in school who receive the SRD grant.
Touching on the lack of doctors to conduct disability assessments at the PCHC, he said that this is an isolated incident and is one the department is looking to resolve as soon as possible.
Referring to the use of retail outlets to disburse grants, he mentioned that in the long run, this would prove to be a better system, rather than relying solely on SAPO branches. SASSA anticipated that the overcrowding in retail stores due to this new system would ease over time. While it acknowledged that retail outlets are not based in every area, it noted that they are present in most communities. He added that SASSA has concluded an agreement with SPAR to disburse grants and is looking at doing so with PEP and Spaza shops in the future.
He agreed that cash pay points are problematic, as beneficiaries have to travel significant distances.
He confirmed that the department will arrange to take the Members through an interface on the system, to assess its user-friendliness.
On providing access to rural applicants, he explained that to limit people’s reliance on its officials, SASSA has ensured that applicants can apply with either a smartphone or a normal cellphone. If more people were encouraged to go to its offices to apply for the SRD grant, SASSA would risk crashing its system. SASSA, he added, has found that the majority of clients do have access to the online application.
Regarding the means test, he indicated that it only focuses on the amount received in the account and not who it came from.
On completing the application form, he stated that certain parts (and not all) of the application must be completed for it to be processed.
He said that the questions on educational details, ID, and employment status are used to develop the client’s profile. If beneficiaries are found to be lying about their information, they will be pursued for fraud.
Referring to the allegations of applicants being required to submit their parents’ ID documents when applying for the SRD grant, he mentioned that with other social grants, both the applicant and their spouse are means-tested. The department is looking at implementing this with the SRD grant. He added that SASSA might have to look into rationing the grants, due to the budget limitations.
Touching on classifying mental illness as a permanent disability, he said that the department will be implementing harmonising assessment tools which will look at disability from a wider spectrum and individual disability on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, the department plans to look at the impact of an illness on an individual’s ability to perform their work.
Ms Dianne Dunkerley, Executive Manager: Grants Administration, SASSA, on the SAPO agreement, indicated that it does not have a specific end date, as it is a government-to-government agreement. The agreement does have penalties for non-performance. Further, it contains an exit clause, for when the conditions are not met. Currently, SASSA is looking into a number of issues related to the agreement.
Ms Totsie Memela-Khambula, CEO, SASSA, on the lack of doctors at the PCHC, explained that the agency has had a challenge in getting doctors to work in that area. However, the department managed to obtain a deviation from the National Treasury to extend the disability grants of those individuals who could not be assessed by a doctor at the clinic. Furthermore, three doctors have agreed to work at the PCHC in the next two weeks.
She added that doctors are less willing to work in rural areas, particularly as they have to do sleepovers. Hence it is important for the agency to continue its relationships with the doctors willing to provide support. In addition, the agency is engaging the Department of Health to get additional support on this matter and also on how both departments can improve the administration of the disability grants.
Referring to SASSA’s relationship with SAPO, she said that the agency continues to engage SAPO through the Minister. Currently, SASSA is reviewing its agreement with SAPO to disburse grants and once it has done so, it will return to the Committee with an update. SASSA, she said, is looking at alternative channels to service clients. Furthermore, she noted that more clients are receiving their grants from banks rather than SAPO.
On the access to the SRD grant, she highlighted that asylum seekers will be able to obtain their grants from retail outlets once the system is updated. She added that some of the retailers contracted by Postbank do have a presence in the townships.
Mr Mchunu, referring to back-paying, indicated that depending on the circumstances of the appeal and if it is successful, clients will be back-paid to the date on which they made their appeal.
He indicated that the R44 billion allocation does not cover the bank fees, instead, these are covered by the department’s administrative budget.
He mentioned that two weeks ago the department held a meeting with the Director-General of the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), SASSA, the Post Bank, and SAPO on some of the challenges experienced in the disbursement of grants. During the discussions, DCDT agreed to respond to all of the challenges through a project plan.
He confirmed that some beneficiaries have not been paid since the approval of their grants in April. This, he explained, was due to the department’s work to finalise a functional verification process and to ensure all systems are in place (which would also assist the Auditor-General with the monitoring of the application process). As both objectives are complete, the department anticipates processing the payments to all grant recipients as soon as possible. As such, those who applied in April will be paid from that month.
The department, he said, has worked on improving its communication with beneficiaries, particularly those living in the rural areas. Further, it has engaged SAPO to improve its communication strategy, so that clients are kept informed on the payment of grants.
On ensuing access, he indicated that the department has been working with non-government organisations on the ground, across the country, to assist applicants without cellphones with their online applications. This, the department believes, will prevent third parties from exploiting applicants.
He asked that the Committee provide, in writing, the cases of individuals who have not received grants.
He appreciated the input from the Committee, as he felt that it had helped the department understand where its system is performing well and where it is not. The department, he said, was committed to improving where it can.
The Chairperson said that if it is required, the Committee will call both the department and SASSA to appear before it once more.
Ms Opperman asked if it is true that the clients have to purchase an item from retail owners before withdrawing their grant.
The Chairperson indicated that this was not true and clarified that clients can withdraw their grant without purchasing an item from the store. Though she did confirm that there are shop owners who are forcing clients to do so, particularly in the rural areas.
Mr Mchunu confirmed what the Chairperson said and added that the shop owners found to be doing so should be immediately reported to the department, which will then institute an action.
Minister Zulu said that both SASSA and the department need to discuss and find a solution to this issue, as several clients have made this complaint.
The Chairperson agreed that these individuals do need to be reported and dealt with.
The meeting was adjourned.
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