Activists Are Calling For "Unlawful" SRD Grant Regulations To Change

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The Social Relief of Distress grant recently underwent changes to its eligibility criteria, which activist groups are lobbying against. One group explains just how "exclusionary" these new regulations actually are. 

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The Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant distributed by the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) has undergone a change which many are not pleased with. The Department of Social Development (DSD) and Sassa has been called out for "deliberately excluding" eligible recipients of the SRD grant. 

The Social Relief of Distress grant, explained 

The SRD grant, also commonly referred to as the R350 grant, serves as a lifeline for millions of vulnerable South African citizens, living in extreme poverty with little to no income. 

The SRD grant was initially introduced in South Africa as a temporary source of relief from the devastating impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, but has been extended many times while maintaining its value of R350, because of the millions of South Africans that have become dependent on the monthly cash distributions.

About 20% of households in South Africa are food insecure which forces many people from these households to beg for food or rely on handouts from soup kitchens every day.

According to StatsSA, 18.3 million people aged 18 to 59 live below the food poverty line of R663. Research indicates that had it not been for the SRD grant, between 2 and 2.8-million people would have fallen into food poverty in 2020 and 2021.

The Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) and the #PayTheGrants campaign have launched an application in the Pretoria High Court against what they say are exclusionary regulations for the R350 grant. 

The Department of Social Development's new regulations for the SRD grant

In line with the undertaking that the Department would review the income threshold, DSD Minister, Lindiwe Zulu, has published draft regulations to amend some of the qualification criteria. 

The key proposed amendments relate to the application of the bank verification, the requirement for applicants to confirm their need for the SRD grant every three months, and the maximum allowable income. 

The Department said:

In this regard, the Department is proposing to increase the maximum allowable income from R350 to the food poverty line of R624, meaning that SASSA will decline any applicant who receives more than R624 into their bank account for each relevant month.

According to the Department, the bank account assessment will be conducted every month and if an applicant's income is below R624 within a particular month, then the applicant will qualify for the grant. However, beneficiaries are reminded that the value of the SRD grant will remain at R350 from 1 April 2022 to 31 March 2024.

Views of the IEJ and #PayTheGrant

Both activist groups feel that the latest SRD grant regulations are "unjustified" and "violate the rights of millions of deserving South Africans," but SASSA is of the view that these regulations are necessary to ensure that only eligible individuals become recipients of the grant. 

In the court application, the applicants argue that the government’s definition of “income” is too broad and currently includes financial support received from family and friends. 

The applicants want the court to make a declaratory order that “income” should only be money received from employment, business activities or investments.

Elizabeth Ruiters, deputy chairperson of activist organisation #PayTheGrants, said:

We are not supposed to be starving. 

The Institute of Economic Justice believes that the SRD grant can pave the way towards a Basic Income Grant (BIG), which has been a frequent topic of conversation for some time now.

Dr. Gilad Isaacs, co-director at the IEJ, has said that the DSD and SASSA have tightened the grant's regulations in order to remain within the budget, but due to these budgetary constraints for the 2023/2024 financial year, there is only enough money for 8.5-million people to receive the grant, out of the 16.5-million who are eligible. 

The Department of Social Development was therefore tasked with deliberately excluding eligible applicants.

Isaacs added that there have been "deliberate obstacles" which have been implemented to prevent applicants from accessing this grant, and that the regulations "deliberately and willfully exclude large numbers of those that are eligible."

A date for the hearing has not yet been set.

What the IEJ and #PayTheGrant want the High Court to rule 

The applicants, the IEJ and #PayTheGrant, want the Pretoria High Court to make a declaratory order that “income” should only be money received from employment, business activities or investments.

The application will also challenge how SASSA uses databases including those of SARS, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) to verify income.

The campaign applicants say some of the databases are inaccurate and want the court to declare the database verification "unlawful and unconstitutional."

Bank verification does not take into account fluctuations in the income of the recipients, they say. They also want the court to prohibit bank verification.

Applications for the SRD grant can only be made online, unlike other social grants that can be applied for in person. The IEJ and #PayTheGrants say some applicants are unable to access devices or an Internet connection, and want the court to rule that in-person applications should be allowed.

They say the current appeal process does not allow for new evidence to be submitted when appealing. For example, if someone is disqualified on the basis of receiving payouts from the UIF, they cannot produce evidence in their appeal that they are not receiving UIF money.

Only 0.5-0.83% of appeals lodged between July and October 2022 were successful, the applicants say. They want the court to declare the “narrow appeals process” irrational and unreasonable.

They also want the court to rule that the grant and income threshold for eligibility should be increased to take inflation and the cost of living into account.

An example of how the DSD is excluding SRD grant recipients, according to the IEJ

Gilad Isaac explained:

"You are supposed to be eligible if you earn less than the means test of R624, and they [the DSD and SASSA] assess this, in part, through looking at one's bank income.

Let's say you receive a [money] transfer from one's brother so one isn't starving, let's say you received spousal maintenance, a once-off gift or even a Child Support Grant; these are then picked up as being income, which should refer to a steady, regular source of income from work or investments.

On those grounds that you were sent a few hundred Rands or on the grounds that your [bank] account is being shared by your entire family, you are then excluded from receiving this [grant]. If you don't have internet access and can't apply online, which is the only application means [as] opposed to all other social grants at a SASSA office, then you're simply excluded. 

And then, if you're unfairly excluded in the first instance, in the appeals process (in which everyone is pretty much failing their appeal), you're unable to introduce new information. 

So let's say you're excluded on the supposed basis (which happens often) that you are receiving UIF payments, and you've got proof that you aren't getting UIF payments [anymore], you are unable - in the appeals process - to offer that proof. It's very concrete and tangible elements of the system which we [the IEJ and #PayTheGrants] are challenging."

Delays in receiving grant money 

There is also the ongoing issue of applicant's gaining approval for the SRD grant, but are still without their promised money. Delays in grant money can be a major setback for beneficiaries, as the money they receive through the grant is what they use to afford the basics each month.

During the month of July 2023, Department stated that it would be finalising the outstanding payments for those approved for June, and completing the approvals and payments for the April applications.

Suggested Article:

SASSA grants

Millions of vulnerable people living in South Africa are currently benefitting from the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant. The agency responsible for paying the grant has received some backlash regarding its new payment requirement.

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