TRANSFORMING LIVES: THE 30-YEAR JOURNEY OF SOUTH AFRICA’S SOCIAL ASSISTANCE PROGRAMME

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By Lumka Oliphant

  • The ongoing debate surrounding social assistance in South Africa persists despite its proven positive outcomes in improving the lives of citizens.
  • Recent recognitions and awards, including the ISSA Good Practice Award, underscore the effectiveness of the country’s social assistance programmes.
  • With over 26 million beneficiaries, South Africa’s social grants are among the largest globally, serving as a vital tool in poverty alleviation and social protection.

Thirty years on, the debate about the importance of social assistance rages on in the country. Very few people contextualise it for what it is and its importance in the lives of ordinary South Africans. It is disheartening that we still have to defend it despite the good results we keep getting for investing in the human capital of our country. I had thought the debate that by providing much needed assistance to poor households; we are creating dependency had long passed, little did I know that this would come from sections unexpected and we must continue to fight for this right and never tire to explain it.

Niq Mhlongo in his book, “Black Tax,” simplified the importance and contextualisation of social grants when he called together a group of esteemed writers to tell stories of their families and how they knowingly or unknowingly pay social grants to members of their families who need assistance.

What then is the matter when the state invests in its citizens through social grants? Where is the dependency when a child exits the system when they turn 18? Where should disabled people get their assistance when life is already expensive for a disabled person? When we comment about the social grants, we seem to shy away from the statistics and the good reports and awards that continue to show us that social protection including social assistance is a much needed policy, and 30 years on, we are seeing the results of this investment.

The National Senior Certificate (NSC) results are proof. We were told that 543,786 full-time learners who wrote matric were grant beneficiaries. Out of this number, 441,872 passed their examinations and grant beneficiaries formed the largest number of learners who sat for the NSC with 160,326 distinctions and 202,156 passing with an entry to institutions of higher learning.

While these are direct results, the country continues to be recognised by reputable institutions for its social assistance programme.

Last year, South Africa was recognised for this poverty alleviation programme, which is central to restoring the dignity of its people. The country won the esteemed International Social Security Association (ISSA) Good Practice Award, in Social Security for Africa 2023.

The awards recognised government efforts in investing in the lives of children, especially those who are from poor and vulnerable households. It further acknowledged the hard work and success in delivering social security.

The South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) also won two certificates of merit for its role in providing Social Relief of Distress for victims affected by floods in the KwaZulu-Natal and those in distress at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

ISSA, which was founded in 1927, is the world’s leading international organisation for social security institutions, government departments, and agencies. Over 30 countries in Africa had entered for the accolades with 138 entries received from 48 member institutions.

As a country, we should be encouraged that the work of government to improve the standard of living of people is being recognised across the world. South Africa has, since the dawn of democracy, worked systematically to overcome its past and to provide hope.

Our social assistance programme has been at the heart of transforming lives and a springboard for change in communities throughout the country. Our social grants are amongst the largest in the world, with more than 26 million beneficiaries (including the SRD beneficiaries).

The Child Support Grant (CSG) is an important instrument of social protection and was first introduced in 1998 to replace the racially based State Maintenance Grant (SMG), which had existed since the 1930s. It expanded the qualifying criteria to all eligible children but subject to a means test. At the time, the grant was R100 and has since increased over the years to R500.

In June 2022, we introduced the Child Support Grant Top-Up with an additional amount of R250. The Top Up Grant is given to orphans in the care of relatives. Thus, avoiding the long process of foster care we have also amended the Children’s Act and excluded orphans in the category of children in need of care and protection. This also shows that as a country, we have done well in putting in place a good child protection system. Children can be orphaned but not necessarily in need of care but may need support. This further acknowledges that as a people whose foundation is built on Ubuntu, relatives have been looking after orphans no matter their socio-economic status.

The eligibility of these grants, especially for children, has been increasing over time from 7 years and now to 18 years. Today just over 13 million children receive the monthly grant amounting to approximately R81 billion per annum.

The ISSA award came less than two years after the World Bank report released in October 2021 showed that our social protection system helped protect vulnerable people and ensured that they could meet their basic needs.

In particular, the report demonstrated that South Africa’s social assistance system is effective, well-targeted, and supports the poorest households.

This means that children can learn better because they are not hungry and people are in a better position to contribute to the development of the country. Helping the most vulnerable in our communities is about solidarity and ensuring that we live up to the values of our constitution, leaving no one behind.

We thank President Cyril Ramaphosa for the assurance that the SRD grant of R350 will be extended and that this grant will serve as a foundation for a Basic Income Grant.

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