The government, saddled with heavy debt, has long balked at the idea of increasing monthly payouts to poor households whose plight has been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic over the past 18 months.
But a look at the lived experiences of ordinary South Africans makes clear that current levels of support grants are far from adequate and will continue to feed simmering anger among the population, as the looting and vandalism that rocked the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July has already attested.
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South Africa regularly adjusts its national poverty lines to maintain their integrity and relevance over time. According to the latest report from Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), released earlier this month, the food poverty line — the amount of money that an individual needs to afford their minimum required daily energy intake — is now R624, from R585 last year; the lower-bound poverty line, which also includes non-food household items, is R890. The upper-bound poverty line is currently R1 335.
Put simply, any person living in South Africa needs at least R624 a month to afford enough food to meet the minimum required energy needed to survive.
Nomsa Ngubentombi — an unemployed mother of three in her late forties, does not need the Stats SA confirmation — she knows from personal experience that the R350 social relief of distress grant given to people aged between 18 and 60 with no other form of income is not enough to live on.
The government introduced the grant last year in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, after many companies were forced to shed jobs during a lockdown that was put in place to try to curb transmissions of the virus.
“I can only buy 12.5kg of maize meal, two litres of cooking oil and maybe some vegetables and that’s it,” Ngubentombi told the Mail & Guardian, accusing the government of only paying lip service to the concept of tackling poverty.
“It’s even worse if there is no other income in the household. There is no one who can survive on that amount.”
With some innovative juggling of priorities, the government could afford a grant of R1 335 per person per month for South Africa’s poorest, according to Isobel Frye, the director at the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute.
“It is affordable and it is necessary given the July violent protests,” Frye told the M&G. “People cannot continue to live in such awful poverty in an upper-middle-income country, as South Africa is. The inequality shows that the leadership is not committed to ending poverty despite our NDP [national development plan] which commits to ending poverty by 2030.”
A World Bank report in 2018 said nearly half of the population of South Africa — one of the most unequal countries in the world — was considered chronically poor. For about 76% of the population, poverty was a constant threat in people’s daily lives.
The report said the use of international poverty lines pointed to poverty levels having declined since the fall of apartheid in 1994, but they remained high for an upper-middle-income country. For instance, measured by the metric of $1.90 a day, South Africa’s South Africa’s poverty rate is much higher (18.8%) than that of two of its Brics partners Russia (0.0%) and China (1.9%).
According to a recent quality of life survey by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory, six years of progress in poverty alleviation in South Africa has been undone by the Covid-19 pandemic, with 36% of households now living in poverty.
For that reason, Asanda Nelana, who stays in an informal settlement in Honeydew, north of Johannesburg, will take the R350 from the government, tiny as it is.
“When the grant was introduced last year, I applied without any luck, even though I was unemployed. As desperate as I was, I gave up on the grant. I tried again last month and the process has also been so emotionally draining. I have only recently been approved,” Nelana said.
“It has been a big challenge, because as little as the money might be, it goes and assists in some way, even at least with certain household essentials. It is not enough and can never carry me for the month at all, because I stay with my brother who is also unemployed,” she said.
The SPII think-tank says its own research shows that 55% of South Africans live below the poverty line, and only 3% have access to all 21 of the socially perceived necessities.
“While many welcome government initiatives to provide social relief, it is hard to ignore that the social relief of distress grant does not even meet the minimum daily energy intake required, as prescribed by the World Health Organisation,” Frye said.
“The R350 is helpful, but there are millions of working-age people living in poverty. The social relief of distress grant is 56% of the food poverty line and 26% of the value of the upper-bound poverty line of R1 335. It is clearly not enough to sustain a person [and] meet their basic needs, let alone rebuild our failing economy.”