Yet for the millions of beneficiaries of the slightly more than 17 million grants awarded, the day may see them on the receiving end of more than a bad April Fool’s joke. They will confront a nightmare not of their making but one that has been in production for years. The untrammelled actions by SASSA will emerge to haunt millions of South Africans dependent on grants, ranging from old age pensions, to child support, to disability and care dependency grants.

The perennial retrograde actions by a public agency set up to deliver social security services to the poorest of the poor have gone unpunished for far too long. Its stated values – including transparency, equity, integrity, confidentiality and a customer-care centred approach – remain the antithesis of its practice since it opened its doors on 1 April 2006. Perhaps the association between 1 April and foolishness portended the constant problems it has encountered, much of which has been self-inflicted.

In a series of articles published by the Centre for Unity in Diversity (CUD) over the past year, studious attention has been focussed on the rapidly unravelling drama at SASSA, with former Minister of Social Development, Ms Bathabile Dlamini, in the role of chief protagonist. On her watch, delays, no-shows, hiring and firing of friends and foes, denials and counter-denials, and even outright lies became the norm.

It is only through the actions of civil society organisations that the courts were compelled to intervene in an unfolding disaster. The buck ultimately stopped on the steps of the Constitutional Court, which was unremitting in its criticism of the Agency and its leadership in toying with the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, including that of children who received the largest allocation of grants, more than 12 million in total. The Court’s declaration of the contract with SASSA’s favoured service provider, CPS, invalid in 2012, on the grounds of absence of proper tender processes, did nothing to persuade the Agency to seek alternative partners. This forced the Court, on two subsequent occasions, to approve an extension of these invalid contracts as not to jeopardise monetary lifelines to millions.

The Constitutional Court-appointed Expert Panel, together with the appointment of an Inter-Ministerial Committee, under the leadership of Minister Jeff Radebe, nudged, elbowed and ultimately wrestled with a kicking and screaming SASSA toward a partnership with the South African Post Office (SAPO).

The latest crisis has once more been orchestrated by SASSA in its bid to extend a lifeline to CPS. Despite the Constitutional Court’s unequivocal ruling that the current contract with CPS be terminated by 31 March 2018, SASSA has managed to create a crisis that in its view, can only be resolved by yet another extension of an invalid CPS contract. This time it is asking that CPS continue to distribute grants to 2.5 million elderly and disabled beneficiaries who receive their grants in cash, as SAPO does not have the infrastructure to do so currently. An extension to CPS to distribute grants will prove yet more lucrative to the company, as it is asking for an increase from its current R16.44 per beneficiary to a yet to be disclosed figure. Both the Black Sash and Freedom Under Law, as key partners in bringing the litigation against SASSA, have vehemently opposed any increased payments to CPS if an extension is granted by the Court. SASSA has not disclosed any information or comprehensive motivation for why commercial banks (offering low-cost facilities) and other community-based entities cannot fulfil this task. At the time of writing, the Constitutional Court has yet to respond to this new request for an extension but has severely berated SASSA for firstly lying about whether a contingency plan exists for cash payments and secondly for “holding a gun to its head” this late in the day.

Confusion, fear and uncertainty about what 1 April will bring must best sum up what grant beneficiaries are currently feeling. New SASSA/SAPO cards, new payment points, new procedures and people with a different institutional culture are bewildering for most people but for those stricken by age, poverty and hunger, the fears are elevated.

Even if the Court takes the above into consideration and agrees to support the best means – under the circumstances – for seamless distribution of grants, including a tightly managed six-month extension to CPS, it must deal harshly with the Agency that has failed the poorest people in the country, not once but multiple times. There is no ambiguity in the assessment of SASSA’s failings, yet it has managed to slink and slide and evade accountability for too long. The justice system has had to widen its own mandate to assume the role of protector and custodian of the interests of the poorest and hold an Agency accountable in the absence of direction by either the Minister responsible, or the Portfolio Committee on Social Development.

Minister Shabangu, you have not inherited any shoes to fill from your predecessor, you need to find a pair that are strong and capable to walk the long mile to fix a broken SASSA. The public are no fools, make 1 April about more than a few jokes. The stakes are high.  

By Ms Zohra Dawood, Director

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