Thandi is a single mother in Knysna . She is a domestic worker who has four children over the age of six years and who are all of schoolgoing ages. Thandi earns R170.00 per week. In late 1998, her house burnt down. Everything in her house was destroyed, including her furniture, clothes, identity book and her R100 savings which she hid in a box under her bed. The Social Relief of Distress grant which she received with the assistance of the Black Sash, gave her R470.00 (one month’s contribution) whilst she attempted to rebuild her life. Although nominal, without this short-term poverty alleviation grant, she and her children would either be on the streets or indebted to a money lender.

The Social Relief of Distress (SROD) grant is meant to help families in dire need when they are faced with unexpected crises in their lives. Historically the SROD was meant to help poor, white families. With the new constitution, the SROD grant has a much wider remit and as a result is facing severe budget constraints. Black Sash is calling for a complete rethink of this grant.

The current situation:
In South Africa, the poverty share of rural areas (that is, the percentage of poor households that live in rural areas) is 76%. The poverty rate in rural areas ( that is, the percentage of households classified as poor) is about 69% as compared with 25% in urban areas. Furthermore, poverty rates among female-headed households are considerably higher. The reasons for this are that female-headed households are more likely to be concentrated in rural areas where poverty is concentrated, female-headed households tend to have fewer adults of working age, female unemployment rates are higher and the wage gap between male and female earnings persists.1

This is our present day poverty profile. In South Africa, the only short-term poverty alleviation mechanism, and social security provision which meets the needs of the poor broadly, is the Social Relief of Distress grant as outlined in the SAA regulations. The importance of this grant for those who live on the borderline of poverty is significant. Imagine for example, the consequence for a rural family of the only breadwinner dying or being imprisoned or taking ill for a few months?. These tragedies are enough to spiral poor families into a cycle of debt and poverty from which they will probably never return.

If one has to examine the criteria for the SROD grant, it is a well-targeted mechanism for short-term poverty alleviation in assisting exactly those mentioned above. Criteria for accessing this grant are as follows:

1) The person is awaiting permanent aid
2) The person has been found medically unfit to undertake remunerative work for a period of less than six months.
3) No maintenance is received from a person obliged to pay maintenance and proof is furnished that efforts made to trace such a person or to obtain maintenance was unsuccessful.
4) The breadwinner is deceased and insufficient means are available
5) The breadwinner has been admitted to an institution for less than six months
6) The person has been affected by a disaster, although the area of the community in which he or she lives has not yet been declared a disaster area, or by any other emergency situation, and,
7) The person is not receiving assistance from any other organization.

Assistance may be rendered in exceptional cases where the Director-General is of the reasonable opinion that refusal may cause undue hardship.

Problems identified:
The town of George in the Southern Cape received R15 000 for SROD grants for the year. This means that only 30 people will be able to get the grant this year. However, a selection of beneficiaries must be drawn from whole area, which includes the towns of George, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Crags, Bitou, Sedgefield, Keurbooms, Rheenendal and all the surrounding forestry areas. (An indication of an unfunded mandate perhaps?) At present the grant cannot be accessed outside the town of George as it is administered in the form of food parcels and not money.

Other problems with grant:
1. People do not know about the grant.
2. Criteria for accessing the grant differs in each province. The regulations are not tight enough and this can result in a situation which can give virtually everyone the ability to develop ad hoc limits.
3. It is our experience in our Black Sash offices that many provinces do not budget sufficiently for this grant.
4. Where meagre budgets do exist, there is a bias toward accessing this grant in urban centres.

In the Welfare White Paper, the Black Sash strongly supported the notion of developmental welfare as a poverty alleviation tool. However, the track record of actual material delivery of those with a developmental approach is not good. Projects and programs are too small and are not replicable, which makes them expensive. Their dependence on outside leadership and organizational ability also renders them ineffective and unsustainable.

The provision of a direct service in the form of a grant is perhaps the most successful poverty alleviation mechanism this country has yet engaged in. The grants are replicable and are able to be accessed by the poorest of the poor in deep rural areas.
The problem we are now faced with is that the need is greater than our fiscal possibilities and thus the need for creative solutions to this dilemma are even more important.

The development of this grant should be considered in the light of the constitutional context.

Constitutional and international law obligations
The right to social security is one which is contained in our Constitution and in a number of international conventions which we have signed, or signed and ratified.

The right to social security is made part of our domestic law in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. In terms of section 27 of the Constitution everyone has a right to have access to social security, including social assistance. This right must be progressively realised, within available resources. In interpreting the new Constitution, courts are required to prefer reasonable interpretations that are consistent with international law, over alternative interpretations (section 233), and consider international law in interpreting the Bill of Rights (section 39(1)). It is reasonable to assume that progressive realization will be interpreted in the light of international law jurisprudence on this issue.

Clause 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reads

The State and parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to social security, including social insurance.

Through signature of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, South Africa has incurred "an international obligation to refrain from 'acts which would defeat the object and the purpose of the treaty'" (Liebenberg;1995).The period before ratification and after signature is intended to allow the signatory (the government) to review all policy and law so that it will be in compliance with the obligations when ratification takes place. State parties to the Covenant undertake to take steps with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights in the Covenant, to the maximum of the available resources.

In terms of the Covenant, countries are required to report to the United Nations on the measures which they have adopted and the progress they have achieved in the observance of such rights. Such conventions require progressive implementation of such rights to the maximum of the available resources. Article 11 of the Covenant requires the "continuous improvement of living conditions."

These Conventions and Covenants are critical in considering social security standards, and even more important in considering the lowering of social security standards. The obligations to progressive achievement of full realization imply a general prohibition against going backwards. An inherent feature of the Covenant is the progressive improvement of standards. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has elaborated on the minimum core content of this right, and suggests that there is a minimum core obligation to ensure minimum essential levels.

In respect of resource constraints the Committee noted that in order for a State party to be able to attribute its failure to meet at least its minimum core obligations to a lack of available resources, it must demonstrate that every effort has been made to use all resources that are at its disposal in an effort to satisfy as a matter of priority, those minimum obligations. (General Comment No. 3 on the nature of States Parties Obligations adopted by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights during its fifth session (1990) UN doc E/1991/23, para 10, as quoted by Krause).

We believe that by taking the experience from the recent work on the child support benefit - which was faced with similar issues - a creative means of reworking this grant can be achieved. Although the initial suggestion was that the state could not afford the grant, through a creative means of assessing the need and the fiscal constraints, an affordable grant was developed for young children. By learning from this experience it is evident what can be achieved from a collaborative effort of a diverse group of opinions and ideas. This would be our first suggestion.

We also suggest:
1. Parliament engages in a process of the development of a comprehensive overarching social security policy which covers all aspects of social security including COIDA, UIF, Welfare social assistance and the RAF. Without this, piecemeal and thus sometimes inadequate policies are being developed in the different departments.

2. The Department of Welfare engages in a strategy to examine the creative possibilities which exist in the arena of short-term poverty alleviation options in South Africa which are social assistance related.

3. Key role players be brought together in order to initiate a process of recommendations based on the needs of a well-targeted poverty alleviation strategy as well as realistic options given our fiscal constraints.

4. Solutions be sought alongside developmental strategies as complimentary mechanisms and not an ‘either/or’ situation.

5. An assessment of the impact of short-term crises on poor families is undertaken. The issue of access to credit for short-term consumptive borrowing should be investigated.

6. In order to combat the problem of urban bias, the SROD grant be administered in rural areas in the form of a financial grant using the same infrastructure as other social welfare grants.

7. A joint partnership between state and the private sector be explored as a social responsibility exercise in distributing and sourcing material aid for beneficiaries in cases where food is distributed.

The Black Sash would welcome this initiative and would be well placed to give added information on the matter.