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Op-ed: Universal social security is now a matter of urgency

- Abongile Nkamisa and Ariella Scher

Our Business & Human Rights team explains why government needs to implement a policy for either an income support grant or a basic income grant urgently

[This op-ed was published by the Daily Maverick under the title ‘Universal social security is now a matter of urgency’]

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) has sent a letter to the government on behalf of The Black Sash Trust, addressing the government’s continued failure to provide comprehensive social security.

This comes In the wake of findings by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) that South Africa is making “insufficient progress” in protecting the right of access to social assistance for the country’s poorest and most vulnerable adults, aged between 18 and 59.

Since the advent of the Constitution with its section 27 right to social security, our democratic government has consistently failed to adopt any policy to formalise the recognition and protection of social assistance for this vulnerable cohort.

Our letter describes the extensive policy debates on comprehensive social assistance since the advent of democracy, including the 2002 Report of the Committee of Inquiry into a Comprehensive System of Social Security for South Africa, chaired by Professor Vivienne Taylor, which was mandated by Cabinet to investigate and make recommendations towards an integrated set of policies related to social security.

That report – Transformation of the Present – Protection of the Future – defined “comprehensive social protection” as: “[T]he basic means for all people living in the country to effectively participate and advance in social and economic life, and in turn to contribute to social and economic development.”

Our letter argues that this definition, considered alongside the numerous policy discussions that have emanated from the report and the worsening socio-economic situation over the past two decades, has necessitated the introduction of social assistance for vulnerable people aged 18 to 59, in the form of either an income support grant or a Basic Income Grant (BIG).

Even before the onset of the Covid pandemic and the resultant economic downturn, the CESCR had in 2018 mandated South Africa to:

  • “(b) Raise the levels of non-contributory social assistance benefits to a level that ensures an adequate standard of living for recipients and their families; [and]
  • (c) Ensure that those between the ages of 18 and 59 with little or no income have access to social assistance,”

for implementation by 31 October 2023.

In early 2020 and in response to the worsening socio-economic situation arising from the pandemic and the various national lockdowns, the state introduced the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant of R350. The Covid SRD grant was subsequently extended, most recently from August 2021 until the end of March 2022. This is the first social grant in South Africa’s democratic history which caters to people who do not qualify for any other form of social assistance, being predominantly unemployed individuals between the ages of 18 and 59.

While initiated as a temporary measure, we consider the current iteration of the Covid SRD grant to be a recognition by the state that the beneficiaries of that grant require permanent social assistance urgently to ensure a minimum level of dignified existence.

The anticipated expiry of the Covid-19 SRD grant in March 2022 portends a socio-economic crisis that must be urgently addressed through the introduction of permanent comprehensive social security.

Despite these constitutional, national and international legal obligations, our letter demonstrates that the government has not taken the steps required of it to progressively realise the right to social assistance within its available resources. In fact, no policy currently exists for the formalisation, budgeting and roll-out of either an income support grant or a BIG.

Case in point: the Department of Social Development (DSD) gazetted its Green Paper on Comprehensive Social Security and Retirement on 18 August 2021 for public comment, which proposed the introduction of a BIG. However, the government withdrew the Green Paper on 31 August 2021 to “provide better clarity on some of the matters entailed in the paper”, and has not since taken steps to replace that draft policy.

We therefore sit without any clarity on the measures which government intends to take to comply with its legal obligations to ensure a dignified life for all, while the clock ticks ever closer to our March 2022 deadline.

Should government allow the Covid-19 SRD grant to expire without replacing it with an income support grant or BIG, this would constitute a violation of the legal principle of non-retrogression in the delivery of socio-economic rights, as Professor Sandra Liebenberg has so clearly explained.

Women disproportionately disadvantaged

The government’s failure here disproportionately disadvantages women. Historically, women’s access to the formal workforce is curtailed, while they continue to work to provide unremunerated care and household labour, which is excluded from the formal labour market but actually forms the backbone of our social structure.

And this all occurs despite the demands for a BIG by civil society having been put to government in different forums for many years, and a worsening economic outlook which has made such calls even louder and more urgent. The government’s continued delay in formalising and adopting a policy for comprehensive social security has, in the era of Covid-19, left us with no option but to articulate our demands in a national, legal manner.

Government therefore needs to do the following:

  • Urgently adopt a policy on comprehensive social security which establishes an income support grant for the unemployed, alternatively a BIG, and provides for the roll-out of that grant;
  • Confirms that the state does not intend to proceed with a family/household grant and/or a “job seekers” grant in place of an income support grant, alternatively a BIG to be provided to individuals; and
  • Confirms that government will not allow the current Covid-19 SRD grant to expire without providing for its immediate replacement with permanent social assistance for 18 to 59-year-olds in the form of an income support grant, alternatively a BIG.

Abongile Nkamisa and Ariella Scher are based in the Business and Human Rights programme at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Wits University