Report: Urgent need for social grant framework on the state’s obligations, but can it afford to?

A panel reporting to the department of social development has recommended that the government extend the social support net, although there are concerns as to whether it could afford a basic income grant.

A report by the seven-person panel said there was a need for a framework that should establish “clear obligations for the state”, as the Constitution demanded that it extend social support to the majority of South Africans who subsist in poverty. 

“Approximately 70% to 80% of South Africa’s population lives in precarious and insecure conditions with little prospect of any relief in the foreseeable future,” the report found. 

It concluded that this needed to be addressed with urgency and pronounced itself in favour of basic income support.

But it found that for the time being further support should be confined to extending the social distress relief that was rolled out for the Covid-19 pandemic, and continues to apply to those in dire need.

“The social relief of distress grant introduced as part of the Covid-19 package (Covid-SRD), involves limited trade-offs and risks. This, because there is scope to raise additional revenue via the existing tax system as well as by exploring other potential sources of revenue,” the panel said.

“We therefore recommend that the existing Covid-SRD be institutionalised and form the platform for an expanded system of basic income support or BIS which can then be improved incrementally over time.”

The panel examined the need for basic income support in the context of the law and said the state must, under the Constitution, comply with its obligation to extend the achievement of social security to human rights.

Those in need of further social benefits count tens of millions, against the backdrop of official unemployment of above 34%.

“The right to social security specified in section 27(1)(c) plainly sets out positive rights which in terms of section 27(2) places an obligation on the state to bring them to life. The state is required to (‘must’) take ‘reasonable legislative and other measures’ to realise these rights,” the report states.

Failure to do so may be construed as a failure of the state to comply with its constitutional obligations where the right to social assistance is as a result unreasonably restricted.

It further said the onus was on the state to prove whether there was a resource constraint that prohibited it from extending any further social support.

Section 36 of the Constitution would then come into play to determine whether the limitations on social relief that resulted could be justified and reasonable “in an open and democratic society”.

“To comply with a test of reasonableness, the state therefore has an obligation to establish a comprehensive programme for the achievement of the rights to social security.”

According to calculations by the treasury, it will cost the fiscus some R40-billion to extend the social relief of distress grant of R350 a month to March next year. The grant was introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the extension into autumn was agreed upon by the state.

In his medium-term budget policy statement, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana said any further relief was for the government as a whole, not the treasury, to decide, and would mean further cuts elsewhere.

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