/ 23 March 2021

New Covid-19 grant, old Sassa problems

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The cash-strapped South African Post Office (Sapo) will play its part in rolling out the renewed R350 Covid-19 relief grant, despite concerns over branch closures.(Bonile Bam)

The Covid-19 social relief of distress grant has exposed long-standing challenges at payment sites across the country, especially in rural areas where recipients are exploited and paypoints are not in good condition and robbed routinely. 

With a further three-month extension on the Covid-19 grant, hundreds of Eastern Cape beneficiaries in particular will continue to struggle to collect their R350 from post offices. Those who live in rural areas have to walk long distances or sleep outside the premises to ensure they get their money. But it is not only the recipients who have been affected. 

Mxolisi David Mnyaka, 44, is an adult basic education and training teacher and coordinator of special grant volunteers. He said a group of about 30 volunteers were recruited in May last year to help grant recipients at the Middledrift post office. “It is sad to announce that a big number which started the programme is no longer with us … The four who remained could not keep up with the challenge of struggling to buy food and not being able to afford transport money. The youth who came from our community were so dedicated, they sacrificed a lot. As a result, the authorities promised them a stipend which they never received.”

The main task for volunteers is to ensure people observe Covid-19 safety protocols such as physical distancing, sanitising their hands and wearing masks. 

South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) Eastern Cape head Bandile Maqetuka blamed the post office. “Those people are hired by the post office, not by Sassa.”

Eastern Cape post office regional manager Nombulelo Ngubane shifted the blame back on to the government. “I have no knowledge of that … We have approached various stakeholders to assist us … There are different institutions that assisted us with the volunteers and the understanding was that the payment won’t be coming from us, it will be their responsibility as the people who provided us with the volunteers.

“For example, the public works department has assisted us in some branches. So, I don’t specifically know the issue about the Middledrift post office. I can always investigate it, but it would not be a post office matter because the volunteers and queue marshalling were not supplied by us, because we didn’t have funding for it.”

Sassa administrative bungles 

There have also been administrative bungles. Thumeka Vellem, 43, is from Ton Park in Middledrift. She has been struggling to get her R3 150, which includes the special Covid-19 grant. 

She tried for several months to collect it from the Middledrift post office before Sassa representatives told her there was an issue with her personal details. “Every week, I borrow cash from friends, neighbours or relatives who have been kind to me. When I wake up in the morning, I pray that I have luck like my friends, but I always return home with nothing. 

“I was informed that someone typed my surname as Vellew. The official who assisted me said I should go to the nearest police station to do an affidavit. I have it in my bag. I just hope they can help me.”

That was on 9 February and a month later, “I still have not received any payment. I went to the same post office in Middledrift but the official there told me that I owe R110. When I asked why, she said if I pay this amount everything will be sorted,” said Vellem.

She used to do part-time jobs before the pandemic, such as picking up rubbish in the central business district in Middledrift. 

Thembeka Mkani, 51, was a domestic worker in Plettenberg Bay. “My former employer claimed that I may get the virus from the taxi and bring it to her mother. As a result, she asked me to leave the place.”

Mkani said the system is causing major delays for them. “In the book that is carried by the public works official, I’m number 82. And I doubt that they will get to number 100 today,” Mkani said on 9 February. “We are already more than 250 standing and waiting patiently.”

“We have no post office in my area, we usually go to the local hall for payments,” said Cwaru village resident Nosiseko Tshaka, 82. The bakkie transporting their pension money got stuck on the side of the road, “that’s why we came to this branch” in Middledrift. “Transport is not easy to find. If we have to get our money, it means we must pay about R70 each person for the return … In the past decades, we used to work in the fields … Today, we are suffering and starving with our grandchildren because there are no jobs available anymore.”

Vandalism and theft

The isolated Amathole post office is one of the few modern buildings at the end of a gravel road that branches off from the route to Alice from the N2, but it closed more than a decade ago. Criminals stripped it of anything valuable and most of the equipment was stolen. Only scattered letters, posters, magazines and newsletters remain.

Ngqika-Mbo Traditional Council leader Nkosikazi Nosizwe Mhlambiso, 45, who is responsible for 13 villages, said they wrote several letters to the area manager asking for it to be reopened or converted into a police station. 

“Our post office was built in 2006 and it functioned for about a year. It was not established for profit but for developmental purposes due to its location,” she said. 

“We were told that the network connection was a serious issue. Some residents would come to make deposits, buy airtime, post letters, but there was no photocopier or fax machines there. 

“The thieves vandalised it. This process took two years. At night, things were disappearing piece by piece. The other day, a local herdsman told me about the toilet seats and geyser he found in the bush. 

“It’s a pity that those who want to access their social grants have to travel more than 25km from here to town under the current Covid-19 pandemic … As the traditional house, we tried to communicate with the department to ask them to open this branch. They have been making promises with no action,” said Mhlambiso.

Robberies and break-ins are affecting post offices in the area. “There have been a few times there in the past year or two where there were robberies and break-ins in the Middledrift branch … in other places as well … Fort Beaufort, Debenech, Alice, Keiskamahoek, Balfour and Seymore,” said acting area manager Andries Gouws. 

He is aware of the Amathole post office’s condition. “Yes, that post office was damaged as well. The problem is that there’s no current staff that can be provided to go to that branch in any case. The building has not been utilised due to cost implications. At this stage, there’s talks of closing the branch completely. The main thing is that the cost to keep the branch open is astronomical and it’s impossible for us to keep that up where, for example, you have to pay a figure of about R250 000 per year to have it open, but you only bring R25 000 in cash. So, it’s not making any business sense to have a branch in there.”

The Middledrift post office was shut for a few weeks after being targeted by robbers. People have had to travel to then King Williams Town, East London and Alice, where the post offices are overcrowded.

Desperate beneficiaries, overwhelmed tellers

Siyabulela Fihla, 27, was assigned to the Middledrift post office as an Expanded Public Works Programme monitor but previously served as a volunteer. She said some beneficiaries threaten to attack them when they want to close at 4.30pm. 

“There are more than 200 people queuing outside every day. So, it’s impossible for us to service all of them on a single day. We help those who come to collect their payments as well as customers who are in need of other services. Sassa introduced a new system where individuals are allocated dates by the last three-digit numbers in their ID numbers to avoid the influx outside. Almost everyone from the nearest villages comes here for their grants. We are overwhelmed and have just one teller inside,” she said.

Fihla disputes allegations that beneficiaries are asked for a R50 bribe to fast-track their places in the line. “I can’t respond to hearsay, no one ever confronted me about that issue. I’m the one who is responsible for bringing the beneficiaries inside the post office,” she emphasised. 

She added that there are no toilets – if queuing recipients “want to help themselves, they decide where to find a place for that” – and said they provided a 20-litre bottle of water and six tumblers to share at the gate. “In 2020, one tent, a few chairs and a mobile toilet were hired, but I’m not sure what happened to them because I was still a volunteer then.”

Fort Hare University student Siphosethu Makeleni, 30, was transporting beneficiaries to post offices in then Port Elizabeth from KwaNobuhle in then Uitenhage during level three of the Covid-19 lockdown. “Due to … the fact that we do online learning, I have an opportunity to work on the side as a taxi driver. I take those people who are in a hurry and want a branch that processes documents fast. 

“Most of the time, I transport them to Bay West Mall or Hunters Retreat Centre and charge R80 for the return trip. Reason I convince the beneficiaries to go to other malls is because you find people from Angola township who arrive very early to reserve the spots. Surprisingly, the people don’t qualify or have not even received SMS notifications. They are here to sell spots for R50 to desperate elders. The aim is to make quick cash at the expense of those who are deserving,” said Makeleni.

This article was first published on New Frame