Social relief should never be political

2009-03-19 00:00

WERE the issue not so serious, the abuse of the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) by some politicians campaigning ahead of the April elections could be seen as a comedy of errors.

However, the series of problems, including food stampedes, that have characterised the distribution of the large additional SRD allocation of R500 million is no laughing matter.

The blunders are, to a large extent, a result of some politicians interfering with the handing out of government-funded food parcels in order to secure votes.

To a lesser extent, the chaos also points to a lack of capacity within the Department of Social Development (DSD) and the South African Social Services Agency (Sassa) to manage the effective distribution of this additional relief, which is three times the normal annual amount.

The SRD grant is only designed to provide temporary relief to those in dire material need. As such, it is just a bridging mechanism for families who have temporarily fallen on hard times or who are waiting for grants or government programmes. It doesn’t provide security to families suffering from long-term financial hardship or people who are unable to access either jobs or cash support from the state.

According to recent reports, children and elderly people were allegedly injured in a food stampede in KwaZulu-Natal after a political party bussed in more than 2 000 destitute people to the DSD offices in Estcourt with the promise of food vouchers and a free breakfast.

This is one in a growing number of such incidents where Sassa officials have had to turn people away from the social assistance pay-points because of interference by politicians. This kind of political opportunism and disregard for the rights of already vulnerable people has caused unacceptable distress to the intended beneficiaries, who rely on the food parcels to survive.

Although similar complaints regarding this vote-buying practice have been levelled during every election campaign since (and, in fact, before) 1994, few politicians seem to realise that many of their practices are unlawful and carry severe penalties.

Political parties have until now failed to take action against those members involved, despite their pledges to election campaigns that are free from violence, intimidation and other contraventions of the Electoral Act.

But the questions tell much of the story. Why are the beneficiaries of social assistance suffering the chaos and indignity of food scrambles when there is a framework in place for the delivery of these services that is meant to protect their rights? The Social Assistance Act clearly makes it an offence for anyone to “obstruct delivery of social assistance and food parcels in pension pay-points”.

It also provides for a mechanism to provide “accreditation to organisations and individuals to be present during payment of social assistance at pay-points for the purposes of providing service or assistance to beneficiaries”.

It states clearly that the purpose of the presence of those accredited should be “to ensure the comfort and well-being of beneficiaries”.

If these provisions have been in existence since 2004, how do we explain the recurring chaos that we have witnessed around the delivery of food parcels in the period leading up to this election? Civil society organisations, such as the Black Sash, have successfully advocated for and monitored the enforcement of these provisions over the years.

We have managed to keep the loan sharks and burial schemes agents outside the perimeter areas of paypoints. Why is it, then, that DSD and Sassa are not enforcing the law and keeping these politicians at bay in the run-up to the election?

This is something that must be given urgent attention by the Minister for Social Development, the Independent Electoral Commission and the Human Rights Commission.

Denying people access to social assistance is compromising many of their constitutional rights, making it even more important to protect vulnerable individuals from being used as political footballs in the scramble for votes.

Having said this, there may be nothing sinister in the allocation and distribution of the additional SRD funds — it has happened before and in the absence of a national election around the corner.

The Black Sash maintained from the outset that the original amount of R124 million set aside for SRD early in 2008 was totally inadequate to meet the needs of poor and vulnerable families in the current economic crisis.

We have also, through our free advice services and rights education programmes, gone all-out to ensure that eligible people are aware of the additional SRD allocation and come forward to apply.

We even called on Sassa to ensure that all its attesting officers were adequately trained.

But whichever way you look at it, the additional R500 million represents a huge and unprecedented spike in government funding for this type of relief. What is also evident is that the current government clearly lacks the capacity to manage such a huge increase, particularly within the tight timeframes (the money must be spent before the end of this financial year).

In January, senior Sassa officials raised concerns in Parliament over the ability of the state to distribute the resources within the given timeframes.

In the absence of tight and enforceable regulations and enough hands to distribute the additional R500 million, other opportunistic players, including politicians, have taken the gap, sowing division and distress by identifying their supporters as the only recipients for SRD or demanding preferential distribution.

Given the competition for scarce resources and the high levels of poverty, together with the heightened tensions that surround any election campaign, it is imperative that poverty-relief measures are not implemented in a manner that causes conflict in communities or that leaves the door open for politicians to use vulnerable and desperate people to improve their political fortunes.

Now more than ever the Department of Social Development and Sassa need to maintain authority over the distribution of food parcels, enforce the regulations, and create a better system for assessing and enrolling those in need.

Moreover, in future, the amount of money allocated to SRD should be increased consistently over time, and wherever possible, avoid the sudden spikes and dips that we have witnessed recently.

These measures should be rolled out with the appropriate administration and regulations to support even dissemination to indigent communities and individuals.

President Kgalema Motlanthe promised during his State of the Nation address that he would ensure our government does a better job of protecting the rights of the people. In this election period, protection of people in need of relief from the distress caused by unscrupulous politicians would be an excellent place to start.

•Nkosikhulule Nyembezi is a policy analyst and advocacy programme manager for the Black Sash. This article was first published in the Cape Times yesterday.

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