Covid grant does even less as food prices soar

Smangele Jansen, a social relief of distress, 'Covid' grant recipient shopping for her staple foods. Archive photo by Ramatamo Sehoai

Food prices are rising as SDR grant recipients struggle to buy basic necessities.

Although many beneficiaries of the Social Relief of Distress grant (SRD) known as Ama350 are thankful and say it is better than nothing, but those with large families and responsibilities such as Smangele Jansen of Riverpark in Alexandra say the grant doesn’t help a lot. They say the biggest buy R350 can afford is a 12.5 kg bag of mealie meal which is well above R100 and the rest goes to eggs and cooking oil. Small items such as toiletries don’t even come to mind as most of the money goes to food.

The grant was introduced for unemployed people above the age of 18 as a short-term measure to mitigate the devastating effects of the Covid-19 lockdowns which claimed many jobs. There have been calls from various quarters to increase this grant, make it permanent or turn it into basic income grant, but the government due to its overstretched social spending sees this as unlikely.

Beneficiaries of the SRD grant want it to be increased to R800 or R1,500, which according to them is the estimate of what an average family needs to survive monthly. They say the furthest one can go with R350 is just halfway through the month and should you try another source of income you risk losing the very same R350 you need. During his Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) last month, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana didn’t mention any adjustment to the grant, announcing only that it will be extended to March 2022. He said the grant has benefitted about 9.5-million South Africans. To date, 27.8-million South Africans are social grant recipients – about 46 percent of the population.

“At the same time, the number of people working has declined, further underlining the critical flaws in our economy. Our total spending on the social wage is also very high. This amount has grown from R860-billion in 2018/19 to R1.1-trillion in 2021/22,” said Godongwana.

The last time she worked, Smangele Jansen says, was about two years ago at a construction site as a flag lady. “I was stopped and since then my life has been unbearable until I applied for this grant,” says the 39-year-old mother of three. She says her husband is not working but survives on odd driving jobs here and there. She has received the SRD grant three times and describes the struggle to get it: “You’ll go from pillar to post as post offices are either offline or don’t have money. The furthest post office will require you to have the transport money which now renders this grant extremely less since you can’t get all your important food items. The best way is for one to get a job but jobs are too scarce.”

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Her neighbour, also a grant recipient, Lindiwe Maloka (51) says at least some retail shops have combo deals for exactly R350 or less which saves much of what you would pay buying them separately. Popular combos contain 10kg of rice or maize meal, cake flour and a two litre bottle of cooking oil. “I also concur with those suggesting the grant be increased. We don’t know what informed the R350 amount because honestly it doesn’t take you far in your monthly basic needs. Some of us are told we are too old to get the job and too young for a pension which is a serious predicament,” says the unemployed mother of six.

Smangele paying for her staple food

The October 2021 Household Affordability Index shows that basic food items like maize meal, milk, sugar beans and potatoes have seen a price hike of between 2% and 41%. According to the latest data analysis by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group, a food basket for the average South African costs around R4,318 which is an increase of R98,08 from the previous month. The group attributes the rise in food prices to the massive electricity tariff hike in June and July 2021. “The massive electricity tariff hike of ±14,59% effected in June and July 2021, had to result in price hikes of goods and services down the line. These increases are now reflecting in higher food prices on supermarket shelves,” reads their statement.

The group predicts that the rise in food prices is set to continue into 2022. On the day that the finance minister was supposed to deliver his MTBPS, activists and trade unionists demanded a basic income grant of R1,500 which they say will meet the immediate needs of the unemployed. Once the general secretary of Numsa, Godongwana said that it is up to parliament to decide whether to extend the SRD grant beyond March 2022.

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Smangele complains that the R350 is not enough to cover her immediate needs.

Even young people who don’t have children find it difficult to get by with this grant. 24-year-old Mary Maponya says after she buys a chicken braai pack which retails for R150, the remaining money goes to her transport and CV printing as she is still job hunting. “Not to sound ungrateful but really it is too small. I would say let it be increased to R500 but not sure for how long. For me I think the long-term sustainability is for us to get jobs,” she says.

“Some of us need to buy a medication or go to a doctor as we are constantly sick. You only buy two or three things and from there the money is gone,” says Victoria Balesweni who is eight years short of qualifying for the pension grant.

One of the proponents to expand the SRD grant, Black Sash is demanding that government provide permanent basic income support for those of working age who have little to no income. Unemployment, poverty and inequality have been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, they argue, and the crisis is not temporary. A more extensive social security programme is needed to complement job creation programmes. “Government is constitutionally obligated under Section 27 of the constitution to progressively realise the right to social assistance for those unable to support themselves. Government also ratified the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This human rights covenant recommends that government ensures that ‘those between the ages of 18 and 59 with little or no income have access to social assistance’ and consider a universal basic income grant for everyone,” reads their statement.

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