South Africa’s elderly and vulnerable have been betrayed by the Department of Social Development and Sassa

Department of Social Development

Department of Social Development : Sassa’s phones are never answered, its system is perpetually down and its offices are chronically understaffed and overwhelmed. Late payments leave grant recipients vulnerable to abuse and exploitation

ith just days before older persons have to brave long queues at the Postbank and other payment points to access their social grants from 3–5 October, I am sure that the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) and Postbank are praying for a rare smooth payment run.

Whether the Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu, would be equally perturbed by the thought of lines of old people waiting in all kinds of weather to find out whether they’re one of the lucky ones who have been paid on time, is anyone’s guess.  

Last month’s “technical glitch” that left hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries without their grants was not the first time Sassa grant beneficiaries have been left in the lurch. Hardly a month goes by without some excuse for why grant recipients cannot access their funds, a situation so stressful that a 61-year-old woman was hospitalised after she nearly died of a heart attack when she discovered her grant was still unpaid.  

And Johanna Gryzenhout is not the only beneficiary paying with her health. Pensioners have died in queues trying to access their funds. Each month the elderly, mothers with young children, people with disabilities, and other grant beneficiaries are forced from pillar to post in the cold, the rain, the blazing sun only to return home empty handed, having spent money they do not have and cannot afford to lose on a wasted trip.  

The DA is constantly fielding enquiries and pleas for help from desperate people being made vulnerable as they cannot access their grants and Sassa is of very little help with phones never answered, a system that is perpetually down and offices that are chronically understaffed and overwhelmed.

These late payments leave grant recipients vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, and the confusion regarding the expiry and renewal of Sassa gold cards adds to the chaos and stress of the situation.  

But the constant late payment struggles are really the tip of the iceberg. The core of the problem is government’s attitude towards the elderly. Sassa and the Department of Social Development (DSD) seem to have a cavalier attitude towards those they are mandated to serve, which is often revealed in the manner they execute their duties.  

This ranges from Sassa’s system always being offline and the lack of sufficient shade, chairs or even working phones leading to frustrated officials and beneficiaries, to Minister Zulu ignoring the long history of payment troubles and trying to shift blame, as well as work ethic of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Social Development members relating to the Older Persons’ Amendment Bill. 

In July, only the DA members on the committee attended the public participation hearings in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape despite confirmations from other members of the committee that they would attend. Elderly people travelled long distances from far-flung villages in order to have their voices heard at this meeting, as well as at several other public hearings in the province.

Yet, they were even denied this, as in many instances Parliament had failed to educate them on the particulars of the bill and they were simply handed documents as they entered the venues.  

We heard harrowing tales of elder abuse, rape, robbery and the extreme distances old people have to travel for government services, only to return home without having been assisted.

We heard about their terrible living conditions and their fear of their families who simply take their grants and leave them with nothing. The Older Persons’ Amendment Bill is meant to protect our elderly and the committee’s non-attendance reveals a shockingly callous attitude.

Not to mention that the average cost of public hearings is R300,000 per public hearing per district. 

Older people in our society are meant to be treasured and supported in their old age. It is on their backs and wisdom that our present and future have been built. Ignoring their struggles shows a terrible lack of foresight.

The attitude one has towards the least powerful in a society is a reflection of character and heart, and one that cannot be ignored when it comes to ensuring that services are provided as mandated. The DSD and Sassa are not performing charity in grant payments. It is their mandated function, and they are failing spectacularly and continuously.

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