The utter disregard shown by the state towards the poor in South Africa reached a new low this month. The failure of the state to pay the Social Relief of Distress Grant, better known as the R350 grant, for two months is a policy marker that evidences the refusal of the government to meet its constitutional obligations to provide for the poor and vulnerable in South Africa.
And the lack of any public outcry is an omission of the whole of our nation.
In February 2022, the minister of Finance Enoch Godongwana announced the welcome news that government was going to extend the R350 grant for a further 12 months. The R350 grant can be criticised on many fronts, not least its low value. It was initially introduced during the hard lockdown to provide income for poor adults. At R350, it is only 56 percent of the R624 Food Poverty Line, which is the cost of meeting the international standard for minimum calorific intake.
The R350 grant has also not been increased for inflation since its introduction in 2020, despite significant price hikes of food and transport.
But until the Covid-19 R350 grant was introduced, South Africa had no grants available to poor working age people.
Almost half of working age people in South Africa are unemployed – just over 12.4 million people.
Almost 80 percent of the unemployed have been unemployed for a year or more. This is known as ‘long-term unemployment’ and it is the international benchmark that signifies a very low chance of getting back into the labour market. These odds are particularly high when we consider that 90 percent of unemployed people have no skills or education beyond matric.
Between December 2008 and December 2021, the number of unemployed people increased by 6.5 million. This is clear evidence that our economic policies are not prioritising job creation.
So, if the market is failing to create jobs, how are people meant to survive?
According to the Constitution, people who are unable to provide for themselves are guaranteed income through social assistance – social security grants. The obligation on the state to promote and fulfil the rights in the Constitution is the hallmark of our social democracy. By contrast, in liberal democracies, the role of the state is far more muted.
It is not expected to promote or fulfil citizens’ rights, but instead to respect and protect people’s rights against incursions by itself or others.
The Constitution, for all its weaknesses, is the social compact upon which our negotiated democracy is based. The state carries the final responsibility for ensuring the absolute right to human dignity entrenched in our Constitution as the antithesis to the degradation and inhumanity of Apartheid.
Progressive civil society bodies clash regularly with the state over what is deemed to be adequate state budget allocations for the public wage, including public health and education. The wealth disparity in South Africa makes us one of the most unequal countries in the world. The gulf between what is spent on a child’s education at a private school and the annual allocation to children at the 60 percent fee-free state schools sets our children on divergent paths from childhood.
The disparities in per capita spending between public and private healthcare further deepen the pervasive inequalities in life between the narrow elite and the majority of South Africans. Budget priorities reflect political choices and influence. The rate of corporate tax has fallen from 48 percent in 1993 to 27 percent in 2022/23, and yet alongside each year’s announcement of tax cuts to companies, Treasury defends its inability to increase the quality of public services by saying it does not have enough money to do so.
This is a redistribution in effect from the poor to the rich.
Similarly, each year social movements, trade unions and social justice activists call on the state to ensure that social security grants are increased to ensure that no one goes to bed hungry in South Africa.
The last objective poverty study released by Statistics South Africa in 2017 found (well before Covid-19) that a quarter of all South Africans fell below the food poverty line and more than half of all South Africans fell below the Upper Bound Poverty Line of R1 335 per person per month (updated to 2021 prices).
So when the minister of Finance announced in the 2022 February budget speech (in addition to a further tax cut for companies) that the state was going to extend the R350 grant for a further 12 months, for the first time in years the Budget speech had some relevance for poor people, the majority of South Africans.
In reality, however, the state has failed to make payment of any of the R350 grants for April and May 2022. The regulations of grant payments shifted back to the Department of Social Development when the special Covid-19 regulations promulgated under the Disaster Management Act (2005) were phased out. Both the president and Minister Lindiwe Zulu promised the nation that these grants would be paid by mid-June.
While the myopic policy design of the R350 policy that punishes any attempts by people to use the grant money as catalyst to earn additional income is mind blowing in a so-called developmental state, and this lack of any political accountability for the non-payment of the millions of grants for two months is staggering, what is most disturbing is that the R350 grant policy, passed as part of the 2022/23 Budget Appropriation, was designed to fail.
In March 2022, 15.5 million people were applying monthly for the R350 grant, and yet the allocation made by Treasury was for a limit of 10.5 million grants. Five million people had to go.
So between dropping the means test to virtually zero, which penalises anyone who wants to use grant money as seed money for a micro venture, to moving all applications online only, which immediately disqualifies the millions of poor people, who StatsSA reports have no access to the internet, to delaying administration of applications, we do not see a state committed to meeting its constitutional obligations to promote and fulfil its citizens’ rights.
We do not even see a laissez-faire liberal state that is committed to respecting and protecting the entrenched rights of its citizens.
We see instead a state that is actively sabotaging its most vulnerable citizens. And a deafening silence from society except for a multi-class group of social movements and social justice organisation that after months of fruitless attempts to see the state correct these actions, is taking this matter to court.
As Burke said: “All it takes for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
*Frye is the Executive Director of the Social Policy Initiative.