PICS | Lindiwe Zulu visits Cape Town Sassa office where police clashed with queuing beneficiaries

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Lindiwe Zulu and Totsie Memela on a site visit to Sassa Bellville after January's chaos.
Lindiwe Zulu and Totsie Memela on a site visit to Sassa Bellville after January's chaos.
Jenni Evans, News24
  • Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu returned to the Sassa office in Bellville to follow up on whether the queue chaos had eased since police fired a water cannon at applicants. 
  • On Thursday, rows of plastic garden chairs were lined up for the mostly mothers applying for a child grant.
  • Zulu said the intention was to eventually integrate hospitals and home affairs' systems with Sassa so that the mothers did not have to go to the office in person for an application. 

"Fathers must take responsibility," said Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu on Thursday as she walked the line of mostly mothers waiting at the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) office in Bellville. 

"Mothers with little babies, we are saying to you, we need to change the system so that you don't have to be coming here to Sassa offices and standing here for a very long time," said Zulu on a follow-up visit after a water cannon was used to force people to socially distance.

She said she and Sassa CEO Totsie Memela were trying to connect with agencies that already had data about people, even before the birth of the babies, and hoped to also integrate that information with the Department of Home Affairs and banks to develop a smoother application and verification system. 

READ | Cele concedes treated pensioners harsher than beach protesters in Cape Town

However, after walking down the queue and stopping to admire tiny swaddled babies, she questioned why so few fathers were present. 

"These fathers must take responsibility," said Zulu to a wry quip of "Happy New Year" from an elderly man gathered to see what the pavement gathering was all about.

Queue

"Most of the time, it is the mothers who are standing in the queues," said Zulu. 

"These mothers would not be here, many of them, if the fathers were also taking responsibility."

She said she understood that times were also tough for men who had lost income during the Covid-19 lockdowns and the associated retrenchments and drying up of work. 

"Many fathers have lost their jobs and so it is important for us to be able to be supportive, but fathers must also take responsibility." 

Lindiwe Zulu, Sassa
Chairs that were brought out for grant applicants at Bellville Sassa.
News24 Jenni Evans
Lindiwe Zulu, Sassa
The queue stretches to behind the Sassa offices.
News24 Jenni Evans
Jenni Evans
Xoliswa Buqa hopes that she has the right documentation on her third trip to Sassa. Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu stopped to chat to her during her walkabout at the Bellville office.
News24 Jenni Evans
Lindiwe Zulu, Sassa
The queues at Sassa Bellville were less chaotic during a walkabout by Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu.
News24 Jenni Evans

Zulu and Memela's last visit was a fraught day marked by the police firing jets of water from a water cannon at people for not keeping a distance from each other in line with Covid-19 safety measures. 

Zulu and the police were criticised for being heartless after people rushed to reapply for temporary disability grants that had been automatically extended during the lockdown, but were not re-extended at the end of December.

By January, people had no money and were trying to get their applications back in, because the temporary disability grants require reassessment to see whether the applicant's condition has improved or not and whether they still qualify for the grant.

READ | Police holding internal probe on use of water cannons on Sassa applicants

They also wanted to get their applications in as soon as possible so that they would be cleared before the next payment run, and not have to wait until March before they received any money again.

It also emerged that the City of Cape Town's venues which people usually used closer to their homes were closed, in line with lockdown regulations, further increasing the numbers at the Bellville Sassa offices.  

The City said that the facilities had been available but Sassa wanted the City to also install the necessary infrastructure. It would also need the facilities for other services, and could not let them be permanently used for Sassa.

Slept

People slept outside the office and squeezed against each other, with no chairs to sit on, in the hopes of getting through the door, as it rained outside. To get their grants reinstated they also had to have a medical assessment, so Sassa had to appoint extra doctors to deal with the thousands of people reapplying. 

On 15 January, during a site visit, Zulu climbed into a police Nyala to ask people to keep their distance from each other and, while she was in a meeting inside the Sassa offices, police used water cannons on people queuing outside. 

The incident sparked outrage, and included a police internal investigation into what happened. 

Western Cape Community Safety MEC Albert Fritz has also demanded that the Independent Police Investigative Unit find out who gave the order for the Public Order Policing unit to use the water cannon, and why it was necessary. 

"It is further unclear to me why Sassa had not implemented the relevant measures to maintain social distancing and to prevent such long queues outside their Bellville office,” said Fritz in a statement on Thursday. 

'You just need patience'

During Zulu's visit on Thursday, she quipped that "I am not climbing into any police car", as she took a megaphone that had been arranged after the 15 January incident when she used the police's public address system. 

However, this time, there was some concern from some of the queueing applicants about the media swirling around her.

"There is no social distancing," said a woman from the queue. 

"The changes and the improvements, we can see things are better, but it is still not enough," said Zulu.

She said the aim was ultimately to digitise the system so that mothers did not have to catch three taxis with their babies to apply for a grant.

She said that, besides the logisticial difficulties, it was also counter to many people's culture to take their babies to public places so soon after birth.

The people News24 spoke to said that the queuing and organisational details had improved. 

READ | Cele wants probe into Mpumalanga premier who was caught not wearing a mask

"You just need patience," said one woman, as people stood up and moved to the seat in front of them. 

Officials wearing "Sassa cares" bibs and aides from the National Development Agency were also present to answer questions and monitor the queue.

"It's better for me now," said another woman, as a man sold budget snacks and cold drinks from the back of his bakkie near her. 

Zulu said the department was keen to implement a system where mothers are tracked from pregnancy when they report to a clinic or hospital, so that by the time they have delivered their baby, if they need a grant, the Sassa system is already primed, possibly already linked to a bank account for income verification, and they do not have to go into the office at all. 

She said some of the solutions to the problems at the Bellville office involved consulting with unions over personal protective equipment staff needed to keep safe from the coronavirus.

"Sometimes it is as simple as buying Jeyes Fluid for the toilet," said Zulu, explaining that she had also inspected the ablution facilities. 

Memela said that they have streamlined the services to focus on particular days for particular grants.

'They don't tell you exactly what you must bring'

In addition to Tuesdays and Fridays, Saturdays have been dedicated to disability grants, to give applicants an extra day for social distancing purposes.

She said that, instead of sending 50% of the staff home - because that is the maximum allowed because of the Covid regulations - staff would be sent to assist at other offices.

"You can't be off at home. You must be working somewhere else," said Memela. "No, it's not because you are on holiday, you have to be working somewhere else."

She said her dream was to have an online system working for mothers within a year or so.

Meanwhile, Xoliswa Buqa sat quietly with her baby Oyisa against her chest after Zulu had stopped to chat to them. 

She was among the women breastfeeding or admiring their sleeping babies on their laps.

She said it was her third time at the office to apply for a grant. The unemployed mother said the first time she went, she was told to fetch a document she did not have with her. When she returned, a different clerk atttended to her, and instructed her to fetch a different document. 

"They just don't tell you exactly what you must bring. 

"Every time I come, I have to bring somebody with me and pay their taxi fare so that they can hold my baby when I go inside, because they don't allow babies inside. I hope everything is right today," she said.

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