On October 12, the C19 People’s Coalition Cash Transfers Working Group and the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) issued a demand to the government – They want the government to extend and increase the R350 Covid-19 social relief of distress (SRD) grant and the Caregivers grant to R585 per month. “The extension of these grants are critical until we have a comprehensive plan for guaranteed basic incomes,” read the statement.
In March, South Africa instituted a hard lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. Thousands of people have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Learners were denied school meals at first. The government instituted the temporary SRD grant and Caregivers grant which is due to terminate at the end of October.
Even as the economy begins to re-open with a “new normal”, the lockdown effects are likely to be felt for years to come. But the crisis around unemployment, poverty and inequality didn’t just occur with the lockdown. The pandemic only increased existing inequalities in South Africa. That’s why civil society organisations are calling for a Universal Basic Income Grant (UBIG) as a longer lasting solution.
So what is the UBIG?
This is a government programme in which every adult citizen receives a set amount of money on a regular basis. The programme is meant to alleviate poverty and replace any other social grant programs. It’s been raised by many thinkers throughout the years. Within South Africa, activists and civil society organisations have been calling for the grant for many years. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown, the urgency around those calls have increased as inequality and poverty reached all-time highs.
Ruth Castel-Branco, Future of Work Research Manager writes that “Progressive proponents of a UBI argue that it would reduce poverty and inequality, while establishing a wage floor below which workers could refuse to work.” It would “give workers greater power to negotiate working conditions and strengthen the social basis of unions.”
Under what conditions is the grant given?
The Basic Income Earth Network’s definition of Basic Income since 2016 is “‘A basic income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement.” The grant is meant to be paid every month in the form of cash to an individual, universally and unconditionally. The main reason it’s been called for is that it is cash given directly to the recipients.
Where does the grant fit in South Africa’s current situation?
Buthelezi said within activist spaces, the UBIG is not viewed as a silver bullet that will address all the socio economic issues that South Africa has been grappling with under lockdown. “It’s more of a bridge towards creating new methods of redistribution – giving people what they need right now which is cash in their pockets,” said Buthelezi.
The idea was first introduced in a 1997 White Paper during former president Nelson Mandela’s rule. The government appointed the 2000 Taylor Commission in 2000 to investigate ways to extend the social security system to provide comprehensive coverage for all. The Taylor report recommended the extension of the child support grant up to the age of 18 by 2004, and then the introduction of a BIG. While supported by several organisations, the report was turned down. Finance minister at the time Trevor Manuel said a BIG was “fiscally unsustainable”. Manuel criticised the BIG proponents as “populist” in the budget briefing for Parliament’s finance committee on the day following the 2002 budget speech.
What work is being done in South Africa?
Several organisations have called for the grant/income in South Africa including the #PayTheGrants campaign and Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre (COPAC). Speaking to The Daily Vox Awande Buthelezi, a COPAC researcher said during the initial stages of lockdown, there was an immediate need for the grants to be paid out. The calls for the government to pay the grants was carried out under the hopes that it could lead to a more substantial and expanded payment leading to the UBI.
Read more: Sassa social grant crisis averted, for now
Government response in 2020
During a parliamentary committee meeting on July 6, the department of social development said the SRD grant has revived the discussion around the BIG as recommended by the Taylor Report of 2002. The department did not give any clarity on when it plans to introduce the grant or how much will be offered as part of financial packages. Based on a document seen by Bloomberg, the African National Congress (ANC) has proposed a R500 monthly grant to those aged 19 to 59 who aren’t normally eligible for other aid. To fund the grant, the ANC are considering an additional tax on those with jobs.
In August, minister Lindiwe Zulu said the implementation of such a grant would not be possible before March 2021. The proposed amount for the grant range between R500 (government) to R12 500 (activist groups).
How do activists envision its implementation
Buthelezi said to ensure such a system works properly, it would require a complete overhaul of payment systems within the state. During the initial days of the lockdown, one of the biggest issues was that grants were not being paid out as they ought to have been. Recipients of the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) grants were forced to queue for hours. Many were turned away and told to return another day. Even the introduction of an online system does not seem to be a solution.
Buthelezi said administrative and bureaucratic infrastructure would have to be built up before the BIG is implemented.
How can the public get involved
There are many ongoing campaigns from civil society organisations. Copac is running the UBIG campaign where they are releasing videos featuring perspectives from different groups of society on how UBIG would help women, labour, the poor, the landless and the vulnerable.
The Black Sash has a “Basic Income Support for those aged #18to59” campaign. They are calling for “permanent social assistance for those aged 18 to 59” with the aims to work towards universal basic income. People can get involved through these campaigns but more importantly get educated about the various issues.
Could the grant have a holistic effect?
The grant as it’s been proposed aims to help the most vulnerable by giving them money directly. But the effect of the grant is not just constrained to individual gains. Buthelezi said while the BIG is a social intervention more than an economic intervention, it does have economic considerations. Paying everyone who is eligible those amounts means there will be a multiplier effect. There will be a demand increase in the economy as people spend the money.
“Being given a grant would greatly expand the spending power that a large portion of the society doesn’t have right now. It would be good all around,” said Buthlezi.