OPINION | Improvements through technology for SA's most vulnerable, is the true meaning of freedom

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Bellville Sassa offices (Jenni Evans, News24)
Bellville Sassa offices (Jenni Evans, News24)
Jenni Evans

Technology has allowed for a new system, which empowers prospective Sassa temporary disability grant recipients to book medical assessments without having to physically visit their local Sassa offices, writes Busisiwe Memela.

"Diversity is becoming a source of strength and collective enrichment.

Beyond matters cultural, this enrichment is becoming a living reality in the evolution of our democracy and human rights practices… to ensure that we carry out the programmes required to improve the people's quality of life. Only in this way, can freedom have real meaning."

- President Nelson Mandela, Freedom Day speech, 27 April 1996

Twenty-five years later, and in that spirit of freedom that Madiba spoke about, we gathered at the GovChat offices in Cape Town, for the Department of Social Development to launch our new SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) pilot – an online disability grant booking system.

"Improving people's quality of life" was former president Mandela's key message in the realisation of freedom. This new initiative adds a level of meaning to our services for the masses, but especially to some of our country's most vulnerable, in the people with disabilities.

This new system empowers prospective Sassa temporary disability grant recipients to book medical assessments, without having to physically visit their local Sassa offices, which, for a disabled person, is hugely challenging, aside from the long waits in queues or the expense.

Technology has, for all intents and purposes, enabled a disabled person. The irony is not lost on me.

The world we live in is digitally enabled - from transport, to banking, and even ordering food at your local fast food outlet. Why should we not use digital technology to simply and practically improve the lives of our people with disabilities, as a critical response to the overflow of temporary grants applicants at Sassa branches?

Global pandemic

Our Sassa strategy 2020-2025 stipulates that, "the main role of Sassa will be to consolidate social security coverage, and contribute to an inclusive and responsive social protection system".

Our first year of the strategy saw us vexed by a global crisis, that forced governments around the world to adjust and adapt their systems and processes to facilitate citizen well-being.

It was Sir Winston Churchill who originally said, "never let a good crisis go to waste", and so, finding ourselves in the midst of global crisis, made us look to technology to deal with the humanity issues playing out around us.

I made the following statement on the previously mentioned strategy document: "Finally, the work of Sassa, in the next five years, will be streamlined towards realising the four outcomes, as identified and detailed in this plan.

These outcomes are:

•            Reduced poverty levels;

•            Economic transformation – empowered individuals and sustainable communities;

•            Improved customer experience; and

•            Improved organisational efficiencies

Like many executives across the world, little did I know that, mere weeks later, I would not have five years to roll out the majority of projects and plans in the strategy. I would have days to change the status quo, and my team and I would have to find solutions that were not planned for 2020, let alone for the next two to three years, but all of the 'big 4' (outcomes) above, would have to be met in one way or another.

I remember President Ramaphosa, on that fateful Sunday afternoon, addressing the nation, saying we would be joining the rest of the world, in a 'hard lockdown' that week. It was two weeks to month-end and my first thought was how do we ensure that the country's most vulnerable still received their grant. A hard lockdown meant that 'contact-less' was the objective, for people who had for decades only known a world of contact and followed a precise process in their collection of grants.

'Build, back, better'

In that same period, our very own Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women's Executive Director, made a global call to leaders across the world, saying "Build, back, better." It would be these three words that would make me look upon my crisis as an opportunity to not just fix the issues, but rather re-engineer them towards the words of Madiba, in the meaning of true freedom being about improving the quality of lives of our people, especially the people of Sassa, the people that I see being 'in my care'.

And so, we got to work, looking to technology as an enabler. There were many hiccups along the way in the whole system, not by intention, but because re-engineering a system is not about technology, it's actually about people, and what the people were being faced with. Challenges being overcome, but a light, in the midst of the pandemic's doom and gloom, was our ability to launch the pilot last week, in partnership with GovChat.

This system is part of that Sassa strategy to improve our services, efficiencies and empower individuals, because it significantly reduces the amount of time and costs for both Sassa and applicants. 200 000 temporary disability grants expired at the end of December 2020. These were the grants with a medical assessment expiry period between February and December 2020, which were kept in payment as part of the special directives in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

You can imagine that this saw Sassa branches completely overwhelmed, with desperate clients attempting to re-apply for their temporary disability grants, while being fearful of getting Covid at the same time. It was this dire situation that led us to look at innovative ways of providing services to our people.

While this is being piloted in Bellville, in the Western Cape, it is intended for national rollout, and part of that process is about working closely with individuals and organisations representing persons with disabilities during this pilot phase, to create awareness about the online booking system, which will hopefully impact their lives in the most positive way.

You must remember that the disability grant is the third largest social assistance grant, after the child support and old age grants, reaching 997 752 persons, monthly. Minister Zulu is emphatic that the system "must respond to the lived experience of persons with disabilities".

This sentiment has been welcomed by civil society, activists, and Sassa disability grantees themselves. In the post-launch media, I read about a woman whose asthma meant that over and above her disability challenges and being in long queues, her asthma meant she really struggled. She was relieved to do it from home, because the system is "simple and easy to use". It is people like this who we did it for.

Medical assessment bookings

Being able to make a booking for medical assessment is only one aspect – the booking is linked to the available doctor's schedule at the selected closest facility chosen by the client, thereby increasing efficiency and service once again. Not only that, but they're able to download the medical referral form and Sassa affidavits, for the medical assessment and application processing online, receiving an SMS confirmation of their final medical assessment booking date and time, including which facility it will take place at.

Furthermore, they are able to enquire about booking and screening outcomes, or which documents to bring for the processing of the application, and they can even cancel the appointment made and re-book for an alternate date.

The development of the system was a joint effort with GovChat, and while it is clearly a source of pride for both organisations in being able to address critical challenges of the people in my care, for me - it is only the beginning, as we look at digitising other categories of grants.

We are not anywhere close to the dream of Sassa as an integrated social security system - but, with technology, we have unlocked the door to possibility.

- Busisiwe Memela is the chief executive officer of Sassa.

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