Covid R350 grants: Millions rejected, but only 10 people are dealing with all the appeals
- On average, 33% of all Social Relief of Distress grant applications are rejected every month.
- Most rejections are the result of applicants already receiving income from other sources, including social security.
- With more than 70,000 outstanding applications and fears that the number of existing appeals are underreported, the Department of Social Development admits that a core team of only 10 people are overseeing the appeal process.
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More than 2.5 million applications for the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant are rejected every month, with one in every three claimants failing to meet the fund’s stringent requirements. An appeal process, launched to assess the grievances of rejected applicants, is suffering from a burgeoning backlog, with data reported by the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) being brought into question.
Launched in May as a means of mitigating the socioeconomic fallout in vulnerable communities due to the pandemic and associated lockdown, unemployed persons, with no other forms of income, have been afforded a monthly grant of R350. The SRD grant, administered by Sassa and funded by the Department of Social Development as part of government’s R500 billion stimulus package, has been marred by technical inefficiencies.
The Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu, recently detailed the depth of understaffing at Sassa, revealing that there was no dedicated team assigned to handle the appeal process. Instead, staff from the grants administration environment at head office and customer care department have been saddled with the added responsibility of adjudicating SRD appeals. According to Zulu, there are only 10 core staff members driving the appeal process, with limited support from regional assistants in-training.
This under-resourcing and understaffing have played a major role in Sassa’s operational failings.
These shortcomings have been documented by the Auditor General (AG) of South Africa. On Wednesday, AG Tsakani Maluleke released updated findings on government’s Covid-19 economic stimulus package and raised several red flags around the administering of SRD grants.
In addition to concerns around Sassa’s control systems, which were described by Maluleke as “at risk” of infiltration, the agency’s monthly reports on the appeal process have not stood up to scrutiny. In September, Sassa reported that it had received 60,000 appeals via email. This exact number was quoted again in October, November, and December leading to allegations of underreporting.
“It is possible that the difference between the AG’s and Sassa’s numbers is the time at which the databases were accessed and considered,” replied the agency in response to concerns around discrepancies raised by Maluleke.
Maluleke also drew further attention to Sassa’s poor vetting processes which had resulted in unfair rejections and unentitled benefits.
“In the first special report, we reported that the South African Social Security Agency's outdated, limited databases and inadequate verification controls resulted in people who were not in distress receiving the social relief of distress grant, while those who were in distress were sometimes unfairly rejected,” explained Maluleke, while noting that the R6.8 billion redirected from the public employment programme would satisfy the grant’s extension ending in January 2021.
Maluleke expanded on the main reasons for the high rate of rejections, saying that Sassa was forced to intensify its control measures after the AG identified 67,770 fraudulent transactions by August. Persons who received government pensions, social grants, Unemployment Insurance Fund payments and national student financial aid scheme bursaries were found to have benefited unduly from the R350 SRD programme. Additionally, 1,513 beneficiaries identified as company directors with government contracts received the unemployment grant.
It's against this backdrop that rejection rates, and associated appeals, have soared. According to information supplied to Maluleke by Sassa, rejections have been based on the following:
- Alternative income sources identified (24%)
- Existing Sassa grants (23%)
- IRP5 registered (20%)
- Identity verification failures (16%)
- Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) registered (8%)
- National student financial aid scheme (NSFAS) registered (5%)
- Registered on other income databases (4%)
“Once a discrepancy is identified through verification against databases or based on our findings, the applicant is declined going forward and no further payments are made,” said Maluleke. “Sassa only revisits the rejection to verify its validity after the applicant queries it.”
Maluleke added that payment delays in August and September, due to an intensified validation process, had created a backlog of more than 70,000 outstanding applications. At the end of August, Business Insider South Africa reported that 300,000 unread emails and 40,000 unattended phone calls was a clear sign of Sassa’s crippled administrative capabilities.
When questioned about these backlogs in parliament, the Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu, admitted that Sassa was overwhelmed and understaffed. Complications arising from the SRD appeal programme, coupled with the agency’s commitments to Child Support, Older Person’s and Disability grants, have done little to ease the backlog.
“Sassa has no dedicated staff assigned to the special Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress appeal process,” said Zulu. “There is a core team of approximately ten people who are driving the appeals process, in addition to the other responsibilities they have.”
South Africans who feel that their R350 SRD grant applications have been unfairly rejected have until 28 February 2021 to appeal. The SRD grant will come to an end on 31 January 2021.
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