Social protection experts have called on the South African government to make the COVID-19 emergency relief measures permanent from October, especially the one that allows citizens aged 18 to 59 to access state assistance for the first time ever.
The country has crossed a critical threshold in making income available to working-age people, according to experts in the field, so recognising that this group merits help in a country beset by grinding poverty, spiralling unemployment and deeply entrenched inequality.
That was the unequivocal message that emerged from this week’s webinar, Social Protection in South Africa: Building back better post COVID-19. Hosted by the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, it aimed to highlight the crucial gaps in South Africa’s social protection system exposed by the pandemic. This is especially significant now as the end of the six-month emergency relief measures approaches.
The Black Sash is seeking 1 million signatures for its online petition calling on President Cyril Ramaphosa, along with Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu, her Finance counterpart Tito Mboweni and the National Treasury to permanently implement social assistance for this “missing middle group”, at the upper bound poverty line currently at R1 227 a month, panellist Lynette Maart, the organisation’s national director, told the webinar.
Research has shown up the huge gap in terms of support for this group, who have enjoyed access during the lockdown period to the Special COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress grant. Rather than ending it in October, we must work with that as a start – taking us forward to the ultimate goal of a universal Basic Income Grant
On the issue of affordability, fellow panellist Isobel Frye, director of the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute, blamed a lack of political will as “a major stumbling block”. Despite relevant research proving South Africa could bear the cost, the country’s social security system was still premised on the apartheid-era focus of mainly giving money to businesses and the employed, she charged.
Meanwhile, said session moderator Stephen Devereux, the SA-UK Bilateral Research Chair in Social Protection for Food Security, 18 to 59 year olds were falling through the cracks. “If you don’t have a job, you don’t have social security. There is a huge cohort of people who have no protections,” he warned, adding that the uptake of the COVID-19 grant had proved the depth of the need.
Professor Alex van den Heever, of the Wits University School of Governance, added his voice to the argument of affordability, saying that while the pandemic had indeed plunged South Africa into a fiscal crisis, this did not presuppose a long-term economic crisis.
“South Africa will bounce back. The country has taken a huge hit because it shut down both the supply and demand side, meaning it couldn’t raise taxes to fund its deficit. It has therefore had to go to capital markets to raise that money,” he explained. Hence, the state could be expected to resist anything that inflated that deficit.
Building the case for making these grants permanent, Van den Heever suggested, lay in making an effective argument that these programmes do in fact positively impact economic growth, which translates into “positive return of higher tax revenue down the line”.
South Africa was not in a disastrous position from an economic perspective, with the economy already rallying in sectors that were reopening. As such, these social security programmes mustn’t be allowed “to be pulled back”, he added.
His point was echoed by Devereux, who stressed that “there are all kinds of benefits from benefits”: “It’s the economic benefit of the multiplier effect. If you inject money into communities, people buy goods and services, and that in turn creates employment and income for other people.”
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