Sassa crisis: South Africa's social security payments in chaos

By Milton Nkosi
BBC News, Johannesburg

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
There can be long waits for those who go to receive the payments

Millions of vulnerable South Africans risk missing out on vital social security payments from next month in a scandal over a government contract, as the BBC's Milton Nkosi reports.

"I'm extremely worried. I'm even having sleepless nights. I don't know what I would do without this money. My family will starve," Magebatho Mamaile tells the BBC.

The 78 year old lives in a township east of the main city Johannesburg. She has a family of six to provide for, including two children and four grandchildren.

She is one of 17 million vulnerable South Africans who rely on the government's social grant scheme to get by.

An astonishing one in three people in the country falls into this group, which encompasses single mothers, disabled people, pensioners and war veterans.

This social safety net - one of the biggest in Africa - is among the proudest achievements in the 23 years the African National Congress (ANC) has governed South Africa, since the end of white minority rule.

But now it is under threat.

Image caption,
Magebatho Mamaile needs the payments to buy food for her children and grandchildren

The government contract with the company which is responsible for delivering the money is due to expire 31 March, raising fears that the next round of payments, worth about $67m (£55m), might not be paid as scheduled on 1 April.

As the deadline looms, there has been an outcry in recent weeks over the failure of the South Africa Social Security Agency (Sassa), the government body responsible, to agree a new contract.

Sassa cannot argue that it didn't have ample warning of the crisis or enough time to come up with a solution.

The country's highest court ruled more than two years ago that the contract with private company Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) was invalid, but despite this, it appears that no alternative provider has been found.

Image caption,
Sibongile Mngomezulu is worried about the grant she gets for her three-month-old baby

Nevertheless, the country's social development minister insists that the grants will be paid on time, but has not said exactly how it will happen.

Bathabile Dlamini is facing growing calls for her resignation and has had to deny opposition accusations that she has been responsible for "an avalanche of failures" that have led to the current crisis.

In figures: South Africa's social grants

  • 17m people receive payments (rising to 18m by 2020)
  • 10% increase in social grant spending announced in this year's budget
  • Total bill comes to $11bn (£9bn) a year
  • 10% of total government spending goes on social grants
  • Three times what SA spends on defence

The Constitutional Court has given the department until Wednesday to come up with some serious answers.

But assuming the worst-case scenario for a moment, what would actually happen if no solution was found and the payments didn't arrive?

"It will be a crisis of majestic proportions. The people will literally go hungry. So they might take to the streets to find food," economist and Wits University Professor Jannie Rossouw tells the BBC.

The damage, he says, would not only be limited to those who directly receive the payments.

"It will also have an impact on the economies of small towns and villages who sell goods to the beneficiaries."

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini (L) is in the firing line

Judging by what I have seen in townships and villages across the country, when beneficiaries stand in long snaking queues waiting to be paid, there could well be serious tensions if people do not receive their grants.

Sibongile Mngomezulu, 18, receives a child support grant for her three-month-old baby.

"The money I get, I'm going to use it to buy my baby's food because I am unemployed at the moment," she tells the BBC.

She says if she doesn't receive the money next month, she'll need to ask her mother for help.

Taken on their own, the monthly payments may not seem huge. They range from 350-1,000 rand ($30-80).

But with unemployment levels at more than 25%, the figures soon add up.

In his budget speech last month, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan set aside $11bn (£9bn) to pay for this year's social grants bill.

That's 10% of the total money the government has to spend and three times as much as it spends on defence.

In many ways social grants are a form of peace tax in a country with huge inequality.

As long as the payments are made, the wealthy sleep soundly in their beds.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
High unemployment rates mean many young South Africans struggle to get by

Would that still hold true if millions of their fellow countrymen were allowed to go hungry?

Back in Johannesburg's KwaThema township, Magebatho Mamaile's situation starkly illustrates the need for the government to urgently resolve this crisis.

"The pension money I receive from the government is the only source of income for my family," she says.

"I use it to buy food and electricity... to pay school fees for my grandchildren and to pay rent."

The grant scheme is a massive poverty alleviation programme which could determine the fortunes of the governing ANC.

If this scheme were to collapse, it is quite possible that millions of beneficiaries could punish the 105-year-old liberation movement at the ballot box.

So there are colossal political ramifications for those overseeing this self-imposed crisis.

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