How R1 050 keeps a grant-dependent family going

2017-02-20 11:49
Berenice stitches a scrap of material which she uses to make clothes for her children. Her daughter Zoe looks on. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

Berenice stitches a scrap of material which she uses to make clothes for her children. Her daughter Zoe looks on. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

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In this three-part News24 series, we introduce you to three families in three different provinces who depend solely on social grants. In this first feature, we highlight the plight of the Plaatjies family who live off R1 050 a month. The family lives in a council flat with 16 others in Hanover Park, Cape Town. Berenice Plaatjies collects a R350 child support grant for each of her three minor children. But the family’s social grant may soon run out if the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) fails to find a new distributor after the Constitutional Court declared the contract with Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) invalid. The matter is presently before the Constitutional Court. Tammy Petersen spoke to the family to find out what a delay in the grant would mean for them.

Cape Town - With two onions, a few potatoes and a special mix of spices, Berenice Plaatjies will give you a meal to remember.

Her pot has magical powers, she jokes, because she miraculously manages to feed her family and keep the lights on with only R1 050 a month.

The Plaatjies, along with 45.5% of South African households, are dependent on government social grants, which are available to families with a combined monthly income of R7 000 or less.

According to Statistics SA, R42 of every R100 national government spends on the social welfare system goes to family and child grants.

About 17 million beneficiaries are at risk of not getting paid on April 1, after Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan proposed that banks and the post office distribute the funds when Cash Paymaster Services’ (CPS) contract ends on March 31.

Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini said the implementation may result in the failure to pay out on the day, a situation she said would be "disastrous".

In 2014, the Constitutional Court declared the contract with CPS invalid, but suspended the invalidity order. The SA Social Security Agency was given until March 31 to find a new distributor or take over the grant system.

A delay of even a single day will be an additional worry because the family already struggles to make it to the middle of the month. Sometimes they literally live from hand to mouth on the last few days before their grant payment, Berenice says.

The R350 child support grant Berenice collects for each of her three minor children on the first day of every month is the only income in the Plaatjies home.

They live along with 16 others in a council flat in Hanover Park, which they have extended with Wendy houses to allow each family to have some semblance of a home.

Bare necessities

She is the minister of finance in her house, Berenice jokes, and she has a fixed budget which she sticks to religiously.

"R500 is spent on groceries, nothing extravagant though. I buy one bag of frozen chicken, canned goods and other essentials, as well as our toiletries. I don’t even buy a plastic bag if I have usable ones of my own," she explains.

With the bare necessities, she cooks one meal a day. When the cupboards are bare, a sandwich has to do.

"I grew up poor, so I know how to make R1 stretch. Meat is a luxury and my children know that supper is whatever I can throw together with what I have in the cupboard. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s edible and filling. As long as my children don’t go to bed hungry, I’m happy."

Treats are not part of her monthly expenses. Anyone who is in the mood for something sweet knows that a cup of tea with a few spoons of sugar will have to do.

Birthdays are the few days in the year where Berenice tries to pinch off a few rands to buy a cake.

Toilet paper is not considered a necessity to the family because "you can’t eat it".

R300 goes towards electricity and her contribution to the rent is R120.

She will probably never be able to move out of the family home because she can’t afford to pay any more, Berenice says with a shrug.

Her husband, Hilton, was retrenched over a year ago when the electrical company he worked for closed down. He has been struggling to find employment ever since.

Performs miracles

He does an odd job or two to bring in some extra money, which is used for essentials such as school supplies.

He is desperate for work, but doesn’t know where to look any more.

"I would love for us to be self-sufficient, but that’s not possible right now. I don’t want for us to live like this, but we have no alternative as we are without a fixed income."

Berenice Plaatjies relies on three child care grants amounting to R1050 to sustain her household. (Tammy Petersen)

Berenice performs miracles with the little money she works with, Hilton says.

"I don’t know how she does it."

The couple’s children are 19, 16, 13 and 7. 

Their eldest daughter, who was born with a disjointed hip, graduated from a special needs school last year.

Most employers want candidates to have at least Grade 12, Berenice says. Few would consider hiring a teenager with a learning disability.

The young woman nevertheless walks for kilometres to submit her CV to factories and shops requiring assistants. Her applications have not yet been successful.

The Plaatjies children wear second-hand clothes donated to local a organisation, Community Workers for the People. Berenice makes a pair of pants or two with scraps of material she stitches by hand.

"I do all I can to provide for my family. We may not have a lot, but we try to get by," she says.

Fee-free schools

A large majority of her community is dependent on State grants. Most make use of money lenders to get through the month.

"But it’s a system you never get out of. For every R100 borrowed, you have to pay back at least R160 on 'all pay day', or else the interest becomes higher. I have made use of them in the past, but I try to steer clear of them as far as possible. If you don’t pay up, you can get a beating."

When someone is sick, they head to the local day hospital because a consultation at a private doctor will take a third of their income.

The children attend fee-free schools, and Berenice makes special arrangements with their teachers if she can’t afford school activities or supplies.

She looks forward to the finance minister’s budget speech, where the annual grant increase is announced.

"It’s never more than R10 but when you have nothing, it makes a hell of a difference."

Her dream is to find a job of her own and not rely on government to take care of her children.

"I would love to work – all of us would. But jobs are scarce and one needs to survive.  I have been dependent on this system for the past four years. Once we’re back on our feet, we will go off it and our lives will be better."

But until then, her family's livelihood depends on the State and its ability to pay her children's grants every month and on time.

- if you would like to help the Plaatjies family, click here to do your bit.

Read more on:    sassa  |  cape town  |  poverty  |  service delivery

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