South Africa’s social welfare net in need of reinforcement, say panellists at Centre of Excellence in Food Security UP webinar

Posted on September 25, 2020

A long and hard conversation about a basic income grant, or BIG, is looming for South Africa, said an expert at a recent webinar hosted by the national Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS), based at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the University of Pretoria (UP).

If a BIG was a fringe idea before 2020, the fallout from the COVID-19 lockdown has added urgency to the issue, suggested Professor Francie Lund, presently associated with the Social Protection Programme at WIEGO. Prof Lund is familiar with such interventions, having chaired the eponymously named Lund Committee on Child and Family Support in 1995, the group that developed South Africa’s Child Support Grant.

But it is a conversation, she acknowledged, that comes ridden with vested political and corporate interests, which threaten to undermine “the legitimacy of the whole system”.

“That itself is going to impact on how the idea of a basic income grant or universal basic income will be perceived, and will or will not be allowed to happen,” said Prof Lund.

Titled Public Safety Nets to Curb Impacts of Pandemics on the Vulnerable, the webinar aimed to look at South Africa’s social welfare system before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The already gaping holes in South Africa’s safety net were cruelly exposed over the lockdown, argued Advocate Karabo Ozah, Director of UP’s Centre for Child Law. The National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) was suspended, immediately denying millions of children of meals; there were delays in administering new applications for the relief grants that the state rolled out; no new applications for the Disability Grant were accepted for some time, among other shortcomings.

But even before COVID-19, and for all government’s good work during the pandemic, the social safety net was already falling short of its objective to radically address poverty in South Africa, said Adv Ozah. “What we saw is that the most vulnerable became even more vulnerable.”

That point was echoed by webinar moderator, Professor Himla Soodyall, Executive Officer of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf). She pointed out how government departments often struggled to synchronise their efforts over the lockdown. “Even before the pandemic, we needed to have had our ducks in a row for the relevant departments engaging in a kind of strategic way to ensure some sort of cohesion,” Prof Soodyall said.

These challenges for social welfare will remain as South Africa now slowly re-emerges from the effects of the pandemic. But there are valuable lessons that could be gleaned from the lockdown, and set South Africa on the right development path.

For one, agreed the panellists, the lockdown suggested that the means for expanding social grants – and possibly introducing a BIG – may well be within government’s financial reach.

“It has actually shown that there's quite a lot that needed to be done and also that government can do quite a lot if they want to,” said Adv Ozah. “Their response to COVID-19 showed that there actually can be a way that government can leverage and do more in a short period of time than we had always thought.”

The infrastructure would also need reinforcing, proposed Prof Lund. This was illustrated by the workload forced on administrators who, on short notice, had to process millions of existing and new applications. Likewise, social workers – widely acknowledged to be stretched thin – faced a wave of additional concerns, including the care of those with disabilities over the lockdown, parental stresses, and a reported rise in gender-based violence within homes.

With that in mind, an exclusive focus on grants and pensions could, said Prof Lund, “lead to the erosion or undermining of, or continuing invisibility, of the other social services that those social grants interact with, and could be even more effective if they interacted more with them”.

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