CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - MAY 12: People with face
People are seen at a South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) building in Cape Town. (Photo by Gallo Images/Nardus Engelbrecht)
  • The South African Social Security Agency’s national call centre has been overwhelmed and understaffed since the introduction of special Covid-19 relief measures.
  • Up to 40,000 calls are received every day, of which only 35% have been answered by 30 full-time agents.
  • To alleviate the pressure, a private company has been enlisted to supply more call centre agents at the cost of almost R5 million a month.
  • But even with this additional capacity, beneficiaries are still being redirected to Sassa offices, argues watchdog MP Liezl van der Merwe.
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The South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) only answers 35% of calls made to its call centre, with average waiting times exceeding five minutes. To improve the agency’s response rate, the Department of Social Development (DSD) has brought in a private company at the cost of almost R5 million a month.

Social grant beneficiaries have a hard time getting information from Sassa. Delayed responses, unanswered emails and an endless cycle of referrals have only grown worse in recent months due to the introduction of special Covid-19 relief schemes.

An increase in recipients coupled with the closure of Sassa offices due to Covid-19 protocols has crippled the national call centre, which, until recently, only employed 30 full-time agents to answer up to 40,000 calls a day.

With the backlog of calls and emails rapidly rising, Sassa advertised a tender for private assistance in August 2020. Earlier this year Altron TMT – trading as Bytes People Solutions – was appointed for the six-month contract at the cost of R29,497,500.

The contract sees Sassa’s call centre capacity increased ten-fold, with Bytes People Solutions deploying an additional 300 agents to assist with queries and complaints. This was confirmed in the DSD’s reply to a parliamentary question asked by opposition MP Liezl van der Merwe.

Without additional resources supplied by a private entity, Sassa’s call centre was unable to provide an adequate service to recipients, the department said.

“The international standard for responding to calls is that 80% of calls will be responded to within 20 seconds…. Sassa does not achieve this standard,” noted the DSD in response to the parliamentary question.

“Currently, once a call is accepted in the national call centre, the average time to respond is five minutes. However, this does not take into account the time it takes for a call to be accepted, which can be much longer than this. It is a concern that only approximately 35% of the calls made to the call centre are answered.”

But the added expense of call centre assistance comes at a time when Sassa and the DSD can least afford it. In January, Sassa confirmed to Parliament that it did not have the funds to automatically extend the payment of temporary disability grants to more than 200,000 beneficiaries. This led to mass panic and queuing at Sassa offices, which culminated in water cannons being used on disability grant beneficiaries in the presence of DSD Minister Lindiwe Zulu.

“As taxpayers, this is an unbelievable amount of money that is being spent on nothing,” says van der Merwe, adding that the introduction of private consultants to assist Sassa’s call centres had done little to ease the pressure.

“And the point was to alleviate queues at Sassa offices. [If] you phone the call centre, with those additional 300 people… they’re simply going to tell you to go to the nearest office. So, in my mind, it’s really wasteful expenditure.”

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