Clear communication from government is essential in this time of extreme uncertainty

Pensioners line up to apply for Sassa grants during the lockdown (News24/ Azarrah Karrim)
Pensioners line up to apply for Sassa grants during the lockdown (News24/ Azarrah Karrim)

VOICES


Since the first case of the Covid-19 coronavirus outside China was confirmed on January 13, the pandemic has continued to send shock waves around the world.

Four months later, lockdowns and various restrictions have been a part of daily life for billions of people across the world.

This has had a devastating effect on livelihoods, especially for the informal labour force which makes up an estimated 61% of the world’s workers.

In South Africa, where high levels of unemployment and hunger preceded the crisis, the informal economy provides employment to 30% of the workforce.

This loss of income, combined with massive supermarket price increases on basic foods, has had a devastating effect on many households.

As noted by Sean Muller, an academic economist, the initial relief measures put in place by the government focused “disproportionately on formal businesses and workers, neglecting casual labour, the informal sector, and the broader population who survive on state grants and the scraps of the formal economy”.

On May 9 the agency released a statement announcing that the opening of the application process would be launched by the minister two days later. Meanwhile, people were sleeping outside Sassa offices trying to get help
Koketso Moeti

Indeed, the need for help is huge, as evidenced by thousands queueing for food parcels and people risking infection rather than staying home in an attempt to earn a living.

On April 21, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a social relief package that included increases to the value of existing social grants and a new emergency Covid-19 social relief of distress grant.

But because the increase attached to the child support grant was a single increase for the caregiver, rather than the beneficiary, an estimated 2 million more people will be left below the food poverty line than would be the case if the increase were attached to each beneficiary.

These measures are not enough and, on top of that, poor communications and a lack of clarity threaten even these efforts.

On April 29, for instance, the official SA Government News Agency tweeted information about how to apply for the social relief of distress grant.

This was shared again by the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa), which administers social security services.

This was shared widely and gave the impression that applications were open.

The number provided was on the health department’s Covid-19 information portal, which caused frustration for many people who tried to apply.

On May 9 the agency released a statement announcing that the opening of the application process would be launched by the minister two days later.

Meanwhile, people were sleeping outside Sassa offices trying to get help.

This is not the only example of poor communication.

During the launch of the opening of applications for the grant, it was stated that a proof of address would be required as part of the process.

Read: Sassa grants: Lindiwe Zulu admits challenges, sends condolences after death of pensioners

This requirement was subsequently dropped, rightfully so given the difficulties of accessing a proof of payment for many people.

However, official government websites continue to state that the proof of address is a requirement which has possibly contributed to people still being asked for it when applying.

Not only does this create a conducive environment for misinformation, but it also further erodes public trust in government communication – which does have implications that go beyond the grant itself in the crisis.

But most importantly, it causes rampant confusion and forces those in need of relief to spend already limited resources trying to apply for it and figuring out what is happening.

Without a doubt, rolling out a programme of this magnitude with the constraints of the lockdown was not going to be easy; hence there was no expectation for perfection.

And there are many, many other problems with the whole process beyond communication.

However, an expectation for clear communication that ensures those who need the service know exactly how to apply for it; what the requirements are; know about the relief; and why it has not yet reached them days after it was promised, is reasonable.

One way to do this is to implement a comprehensive communications strategy, which must ensure consistent messages across all government communications is essential.

Those who manage social media accounts must be provided with clear guidelines so they, too, can respond to queries with consistent and correct information
Koketso Moeti

All websites must be timeously updated with the latest information, which includes challenges that are being experienced in the administration of the relief.

Those who manage social media accounts must be provided with clear guidelines so they, too, can respond to queries with consistent and correct information.

But over and above that, Sassa’s own staff need to be well-informed, so they don’t cause further confusion by needlessly turning back people for not meeting requirements that were not stipulated by the agency.

This is a time of heightened anxiety for many people, who are concerned about the safety of their loved ones and communities, and of economic uncertainty, to name just a couple of the effects of the pandemic.

All government communication should be managed effectively so as to stop causing further distress to people.

Moeti has a long background in civic activism and has over the years worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action.

Last year she was made an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity. She is also an inaugural Obama Foundation fellow and an Aspen New Voices Senior Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti


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