A milestone or a deadend? South Africa’s social grants in the time of Covid-19

The introduction of a new grant and an extended child grant signals a hopeful moment in South Africa but we must not discount the challenges that lie ahead. A version of this article will appear shortly on Open Democracy.

‘At the moment the government is doing what it should of done a long time [ago] to help fight poverty in South Africa’, Lwando wrote, reflecting on news that the South Africa government would be increasing its existing Child Support Grant and introducing a new grant to help those who had no other income or support amidst the Covid-19 Crisis.

Lwando lives in Imizamo Yethu, a mixture of formal and informal houses to the south west of Cape Town’s city centre. He is one of 70 participants in our Lockdown Diary Project, which spans Cape Town’s occupied buildings, informal settlements, townships and suburbs. Our project invites participants to reflect on the impact of lockdown on their everyday lives. Perhaps surprisingly, given the diversity of this group, the government’s decision to increase grant provision has been met with near universal support.

‘Many families will sleep with their stomach full and will be able to even buy clothes for them and their families coz winter is coming’, explained Nathi from Khayelitsha, one of Cape Town’s poorer townships. Her sentiments were echoed by Judy, in one of the city’s more affluent suburbs. ‘I think it is good that social grants are being increased’, she reflected, ‘but these increases are long overdue’. This should not just be an emergency measure she argued. Rather, the grants ‘should continue going forward’.

Given the support that the government’s new grant has garnered, there is a hope in some corners that this might be the first step on the road to a universal Basic Income Grant – an unconditional payment issued to all South Africans to make everyday life possible. This is an idea with deep historical roots. The belief that people should have a right to ‘share in the nation’s wealth’ was ingrained in the Freedom Charter penned by the African National Congress and its allies in 1955, during the struggle against apartheid. In recent decades, a number of commentators, activists and academics have proposed similar measures. Since the Lockdown began, calls for a Basic Income Grant have only grown.

That said, there remains a huge gulf between the government’s new grant and a Basic Income Grant. Those seeking to bridge the gap are likely to face significant push back, both from the state and from society at large.

For their part, the government has been careful to limit any sense that they are setting a precedent for post-Covid-19 interventions. The gap between the formal title of the grant – the Social Relief of Distress Grant – and its popular name – the Unemployment Grant – is telling. The former suggests a temporary, humanitarian lifeline offered by the government amidst crisis. The latter suggests state support in the face of unemployment: a stubbornly structural problem that has haunted the country for several decades. 

Caught in the crosshairs of automation and deindustrialisation, South Africa had an official unemployment rate of 29.1% in 2019. Given that this statistic reflects those unsuccessfully seeking work rather than those who are out of a job, the actual level of unemployment in the country is likely to be far higher. Shifting the narrative from emergency relief to sustained support will be no easy job in South Africa. The country’s existing grants and support structures mean that it is far from being a purely neo-liberal state. That said, inclusion and belonging in South Africa are still heavily determined by the market. The emergence of  Basic Income Grant would shift these terms of engagement: the welfare of citizens would be secured by the state, not by their market value.

Moving further towards a Basic Income Grant is also likely to fracture the consensus that we heard above. There is also a world of difference between the R350 per month on offer and the guaranteed minimum wage of R3598 per month or Oxfam’s proposed living wage for South Africa R6460 per month. If the amount on offer from the government reached more sustainable levels, two well-worn objections are likely to emerge.

The first is the idea that those with access to a basic income will be averse to work. Whilst the link between work avoidance and the grants has been debunked empirically, it continues to be powerful politically. Second, the belief that grant recipients would spend their grants irresponsibly: another long-held objection that survives despite being challenged in numerous studies. Third, the fear that basic income grants are unaffordable for a middle-income country like South Africa. Already, several of our lockdown project diarists were concerned that grants would stretch government coffers. In order for people to see the Basic Income Grant as a possibility, we need to understand that the money we have to spend, and what we spend it on, are shaped by who and what we value as a society. This, in turn, shapes the tax we collect and the spending we prioritise. The Basic Income Grant is made possible economically when we realise that our futures, and our mutual wellbeing, are bound up together. Making the Basic Income Grant work may require radical change but this change would allow us to rebuild our economy from its foundations to support the humanity of all.

Finally, even if this grant does mark an important milestone in South Africa, the framing of future interventions will be crucial. Not all basic income grants are equal. Much depends upon the broader social and political expectations in which they are embedded. Basic Income Grants should serve as the foundation of a broader ‘social solidarity’ not the limit of people’s obligations to one another. Moreover – particularly in a country with a record of xenophobic violence like South Africa – the criteria for inclusion into this social solidarity are critical. Whilst all interventions are ultimately bounded, if Basic Income Grants are only given those with permanent citizenship within the country, then the divides between those treated like South African citizens and foreign subjects may deepen further.

Ultimately all social grants are political tools, not political blueprints. The future societies that they can be used to build are as diverse as the ideologies of the people who build them. We do not yet know how South Africa’s new and expanded grants – and those that may follow – will reflect and write the blueprints of tomorrow. Those blueprints will be shaped by who and what South Africans value as they emerge from Lockdown, and the political imaginations that they hold.


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