Social welfare in South Africa found wanting, again

Lockdown orders did not create the growing humanitarian crisis; they revealed its extent and the inadequacy of the pre-existing and newly expanded social safety net

T.O. Molefe
May 4, 2020 · 5 min read
People await food parcels in Olievenhoutbosch, a township in the City of Tshwane metropolitan municipality, home to South Africa’s capital (Image: Rorisang Kgosana)

The historian Howard Phillips observed that there arose “reformist zeal” in the Union of South Africa in the immediate aftermath of the 1918 Spanish Flu — which killed over 300 000 people in the country and threw into sharp relief the virtual non-existence of the white supremacist regime’s welfare system: orphaned children of all races had nowhere to go and families were left destitute after the death of the sole income earner. Much of the zeal (however short lived and even if dismissed by the local socialist movement as merely proposals for “quack remedies”) was forward looking, with the intention of making sure the country’s health and social welfare systems were prepared for the next outbreak, according to Phillips:

… a longer term perspective enables one to see that together, all these limited achievements were part of a larger, gradual movement towards an interventionist, White welfare state in South Africa.

The welfare state for Whites precipitated by the 1918 pandemic, among other catalysts in the decades after the Anglo-Boer war, would gradually expand by the late 1920s to include elderly Black people and, by the 1930s, social protection for some Black children in urban areas. And it was eventually ‘deracialised’ and repurposed in the democratic era with the aim of reducing poverty and inequality, giving rise to the present day’s developmental welfare state — which has been criticised as remaining too residual in approach and inappropriate given the realities:

It is not possible to adopt a model of social security that assumes full employment because of the form of racial capitalism that existed and continues to dominate in South Africa and that excludes large parts of the black African population from skilled jobs. Both social and economic indicators show that individuals are not able to contribute to social insurance payments if they are not in formal employment and earning a decent wage.

Announced as part of a package of economic and social relief measures to support the country’s timely disaster declaration and subsequent national lockdown to slow the infection rate of the novel coronavirus, the new social relief of distress (SRD) grant temporarily addresses this shortcoming in part. It provides R350 (±US$19) per month for six months to informal sector workers unable to ply their trade under the lockdown, earners of low or precarious wages (such as domestic workers) who were laid off without the protection of the public or private unemployment insurance schemes, and others with no income or social assistance of any sort.

But the grant and other increases to existing welfare measures are arguably too low in monetary terms, and payments for May 2020 have been delayed by up to five days. The SRD grant also took long to finalise and the South African Social Security Agency, whose offices closed during the lockdown, is still training volunteers to help potential SRD grant beneficiaries enrol online as many either do not have access to digital technologies or do not know how to use them.

The agency’s systems are also notoriously glitchy.

All of this presents the real possibility of more frequent and desperate scenes like those from the past weekend in Olievenhoutbosch, where massive crowds gathered without observing physical distancing protocols, hoping to obtain food parcels being distributed by a non-governmental organisation. The risk of person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus in such crowds is high, meaning that once again, as was the case in 1918, as it was in the 1990s and 2000s with the Aids epidemic, Black households in the country will likely bear the brunt of the toll from the outbreak of a viral disease.

Many vocal and influential people, political commentators and opposition party politicians among them, have argued that to avoid scenes like those in Olievenhoutbosch, the economy must be reopened more rapidly, with strict observance of physical distancing and hygiene measures, so that people can get back to earning income safely. This argument to reopen the economy, apparently for the sake of the poor, ignores that the most vulnerable, those risking their health for food, were already under a lockdown of a different sort: they were structurally excluded from economic participation and the few included were among the working poor. The formal lockdown served only to reveal just how reliant such people had been on welfare organisations and remittances from family and friends in insured employment, however meagre those earnings.

Only households in the top three deciles sourced the majority of their income from sources other than the child support grant and informal work (Source: The Conversation)

So, it would not be unkind to describe the cry to re-open the economy as reactionary in so far as it is put forward as the solution to the country’s growing humanitarian crisis, which predates the current pandemic. Re-opening the economy can only ever be a part of the solution, a small part, given its current exclusionary nature.

In 2015, before the CoViD-19 pandemic, the majority of the South African population lived on less than R992 (±US$58.8) per month (Source: StatsSA)

That being said, new social security measures such as the SRD grant and the six-month increase to the child-support grant are in themselves not enough, despite being necessary and better reasoned than appeals to the market economy to save the poor. Because over and above the administrative issues and being insufficient to meet people’s needs during this time, their temporary nature still leaves beneficiaries without any long-term income security. And because there is no clear constitutional or ethical reason as to why this is the case — questionable claims about fiscal limitations do not count — these reforms are at risk of themselves being called quack remedies no better than plaster on a volcano, as their predecessors were in the fevered pitch of socialist hyperbole. Worse, they, too, could prove inadequate when tested by the next national disaster.

Clearly, a deeper and more incisive social and economic overhaul is due. On the 25th day of the lockdown, president Cyril Ramaphosa hinted that this could take the form of forging from this national disaster “a new economy in a new global reality”. No details were immediately provided, as with many of his recent pronouncements. It remains to be seen if Ramaphosa’s lofty words, once put through the wringer of the political process, will be worth anywhere near as much as the man.

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