How COVID-19 Could be the first step in building a universal social security system in South Africa.

How to survive when you have no income and a family to feed?

This is a harsh reality millions of South Africans who are unemployed and living without savings confront every day.  The economic crisis caused by COVID-19 has seen an increase to layoffs and job losses leading  to families being solely dependent on food packages, charity and handouts. 

Even before COVID-19, South Africa had a massive unemployment problem.

Prior to the crisis, STATSSA estimated that 10.4 million people were unemployed. They now estimate 1.6 million jobs have been lost during the pandemic and this number only reflects the formal economy. Now an estimated 15 million people working in the informal economy are not getting paid or earning an income putting  even greater pressure on families.

On the 24th April 2020, the Government of South Africa as part of its R500 billion economic rescue package,
announced details of a R50 billion commitment to social safety nets.

In addition to increasing and expanding the caregiver grant as part of the child support grant to R500 for six months, the government announced the creation of the COVID-19 Social Relief Distress Grant, a sum of R350 per month per person aged between 18-59 unemployed. 

Since 1994, South Africa has been committed to building universal social security, yet before the COVID-19 Social Relief Distress Grant, only children, the disabled and elderly have been able to qualify. The success of the Child Support Grant, which was rolled out in 2008, has been instrumental in providing a safety net to almost 12 million children in the country and bringing a level of stability to many of the poorest families.   It has also demonstrated that this mechanism of providing an income to the poorest families could make a difference and improve household nutrition and health.

“We welcome the roll out of the temporary COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress grant as the first step towards permanent Social Assistance for those between 18 to 59 years with no or little income. This is a first important step to building a universal safety net for all South Africans.” said Lynette, Executive Director of Black Sash, who through their national network, play a critical role in monitoring and expanding social grants.

As Black Sash wrote to Government, the grant is a first step in creating comprehensive social security, a commitment the country signed up to as part of its commitment to the International Covenant for Economic and Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)  to “ensure that those between the ages of 18 to 59 with little and no income have access to social assistance” by 31 October 2020. 

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Black Sash and other civil society organisations advocate for the Grant to match the cost of living and see the allowance made permanent beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

They prescribe that the grant be increased to at least 1000 Rand, which is still less than the poverty line of R1227so as to offer more than a token to poor families. As their research indicates R350 is not enough to cover food, transport, and energy and way below the monthly basket of staple food that has increased by R253, from R3,221 on 2 March to before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, to R3,474 by the end of April.

“We welcome extending the country’s social safety net to include more vulnerable and poor people, yet we would like to see a much larger national allocation to the social assistance budget.”  Said Lynette Maart, National Director of Black Sash.

“COVID-19 has demonstrated how important it is to have a strong safety net to prevent suffering, illness and vulnerability. While the Government is committed to helping the country get through this crisis, helping the poorest citizens requires a sustained, adequate and long term investment.”

Black Sash along with other social justice organisations is advocating that government redirect finance from the military, the extended public works programme and other non-essential service sources to make sure the Social Relief of Distress and Social Assistance budget is not only adequate in the short term but sustained in the long term.

About Black Sash

The Black Sash Trust is a 63 year old veteran human rights organisation advocating for social justice in South Africa. It has a staff of 53 and works through a network of 400 community based organizations to advocate, monitor and realize the socio-economic rights for the most vulnerable, to reduce poverty and inequality.

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