Intervention – “Social Justice Where Transitional Justice Failed: Universal Basic Income in South Africa and Spatial Considerations of Service Delivery”

Susan Forde (University of York; @Susan4025)

Spatial Inequality

A- we are very much entrenched by the legacy of apartheid.
B- In terms of where we stay, where we are allowed to stay, what we can afford. (The Black Sash Trust, Interview, 2019)[1]

The necessity of the implementation of a Universal Basic Income Grant (UBIG) in South Africa is stark. The failure of the transitional justice process to address the maintained inequalities established through colonialism and entrenched during apartheid, has contributed to the enduring racialised oppression and repression of Black and Coloured communities,[2] and the ongoing racialised socio-economic divide in the country. As Gready and Robbins (2019: 40) observe, for justice to be transformative it must confront “social exclusion and address basic needs” to avoid a maintenance of poverty and marginalisation. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has further illuminated the everyday impact of colonial and apartheid engineered poverty in South Africa, as it draws focus to inequalities, movement, residential spaces, transport, spaces of work, power and privilege (Davis 2020; Jordan et al. 2020; Koka 2020). Apartheid, categorised as a crime against humanity, is very much maintained in South Africa. What follows demonstrates the necessity of a UBIG as a form of redress, along with discussing the spatial and context specific challenges to be considered for the implementation.

A central argument for activists[3] working for the establishment of a Universal Basic Income Grant in South Africa is the enduring spatial violence of apartheid (Black Sash Interview, 2019). Fundamentally, the racially homogenous spaces established under apartheid have largely been maintained since the advent of democracy. This means that, typically, Black and Coloured communities live in informal and peripheral residential spaces. Often in these spaces the infrastructure (water, electricity, sanitation) has been institutionally neglected and underfunded, as part of the enduring oppression.

Our social grant beneficiaries stay in the poorer communities of South Africa; they stay in the informal settlements and they stay where the RDP houses [government-subsidised housing] are. (Black Sash representative A, Interview, 2019)

The current grant system in South Africa is means tested and restricted in terms of who can apply, and issues with the service delivery of this programme are notable and extend existing inequality. There are numerous grants including, disability grants, older person’s grants, and grants for people with children (GroundUp 2017). Both the disability and older person’s grant is R1,860 per month as of April 2020; for comparison the average salary in South Africa is 22,500 per month (ibid.; Statistics SA 2020: 9). The amount increases by 10 rand if you are over 75), and an individual cannot be eligible for both the disability grant and the older person’s grant, though there is an additional “Grant in Aid” available if a beneficiary needs a full-time caregiver (GroundUp 2017.). These grants are all means tested and applications are only successful if income is below a certain amount (R6,510 for the Disability Grant and the Older Person’s grant which increases to R13,020 if married) in addition to be eligible assets must be less than R1,115,400, or R2,230,800 if married, this applies to both grants (ibid.). Applicants to the Older Person’s grant is for those aged 60 and over, while the disability grant is eligible for applicants aged 18-59. However, these grants which are already small, end up sometimes being the only source of income in households headed by grandparents (Black Sash representative B, 2019).

As previously noted, the spaces in Cape Town where grant beneficiaries live are typically dislocated from the city centre. The spatial distance coupled with poor public transport – a legacy of apartheid – means that there is a high cost involved if people try to look for work “because they are so far from the city centre and where the work is at” (Black Sash representative A, 2019). Additional challenges also emerge in the context of securing employment, through the distance that needs to be travelled every day and the different forms of transport needed in order to arrive at work and then return home. Without financial support, individuals face exclusion from employment, as Standing (2012: 20) observes: “without a basic income, the right to work is denied”.

A- here was an example case study, a lady who works in [the V&A] Waterfront, but she stays in Khayelitsha, how many [mini bus] taxies does she have to get to get to waterfront and does it really equate to what she gets?
B- People then stay unemployed because of the spatial settings, it’s not worth it for them to work. (Black Sash Interview, 2019)

Khayelitsha, is one of the largest, most densely populated, and fastest growing townships in South Africa. The population of Khayelitsha is predominately Black African. Due to high levels of engineered poverty and resultant survival crime and gang violence, the safety and security of individuals living in townships, informal settlements, or sleeping rough is severely and routinely threatened. Alongside this, police corruption and gang collusion are widely reported (Corruption Watch 2018, 2019). Notably, Black women in South Africa face increasingly high levels of violence in both public and private spaces (Helman and Ratele 2018). The combination of engineered poverty and heteronormative, patriarchal gender norms has contributed to the significant decline of safety for women in public and private spaces, demonstrated by increasing levels of gender-based violence (McKaiser 2012; Muthien 2012: 2). Safety issues are exacerbated due to the institutional neglect of townships (lack of street lighting and law enforcement, for example). In combination with this is the recent failings of public electricity provider Eskom and frequent load shedding (scheduled power cuts to reduce service demand). In February 2020 this reached Stage 2 load shedding at 21 hours per day such cuts disproportionally impacts on communities experiencing engineered poverty. Furthermore, as commuters travelling from township areas often have to leave their place of residence very early in the morning, sometimes 4 or 5 am, and return late at night, commuters, and in particular women, who work in central Cape Town are further exposed to significant levels of danger. The implementation of a Universal Basic Income Grant can be argued to be an important step in confronting transgenerational oppression and the enduring, spatially, socially, and economically violent legacies of colonialism and apartheid.

Universal Basic Income

You’ve got the big picture, or the big ask of saying “we want an income grant for all”, and you need the buy in of all South Africans. (Back Sash representative A, Interview, 2020)

The well-being benefits of Universal Basic Income have been demonstrated and argued for (Davala et al. 2015; Haagh 2019; Lawhon and McCreary 2020; Standing 2008, 2012) in a variety of different contexts, including a recent pilot study in Finland (Henley 2020), India (Davala et al. 2015; Roberts 2017) and Kenya (Haushofer and Shapiro 2013). In Kenya, randomised participants were assigned a lump sum or monthly payment from July 2011 to January 2013; the study found that the increase in income led to a variety of positive effects including a growth in “the empowerment of women at the village level” (Haushofer and Shapiro 2013: 36). In Finland, the scheme ran for two years; it involved a monthly payment of 560 euros delivered to 2,000 unemployed persons who were randomly selected. The study found that recipients had less “mental strain” and “were more satisfied with their lives” (Henley 2020). And in India, from 2011 to 2012 two pilot schemes were conducted in the state of Madhya Pradesh ranging in cash value, but also demonstrating positive effects in well-being, empowerment of women, health, schooling, and jobs (Davala et al. 2015; Roberts 2017). Similar cash transfer programmes in Namibia, Uganda, and South Africa also showed comparable positive effects in terms of food security, school attendance, health, social cohesion, and also positively affected the lives of women (Edmonds 2006; Haarmann et al. 2009; Haushofer and Shapiro 2013; Kela 2019; Owusu‐Addo et al. 2018; Roberts 2017). Fundamentally, these cases also all observe the dignity of choice and increased agency that a UBIG can facilitate.

A- You have high unemployment and there needs to be a solution to that. And the only solution we foresee is having a basic income grant, because that will actually encourage dignity, employment, etc.
B- There’s no finding that it encourages laziness. (Black Sash Interview, 2020)

Universal Basic Income would establish a blanket provision in terms of financial support regardless of positionality. In South Africa, the findings of the 2002 Taylor Committee of Inquiry into a Comprehensive System of Social Security which called for UBIG (Parliamentary Monitoring Group 2003; Terreblanche 2007) led to wide support for the implementation of such a grant programme (Chipkin and Vidojevic 2020). But these promising signs did not translate into the implementation of a UBIG.

In response to the current COVID-19 crisis, which has further demonstrated the acuteness of inequalities experienced by oppressed populations, the South African government have implemented a range of (somewhat limited) financial support mechanisms. For example, individuals not already receiving financial support can apply for a payment of R350 a month (roughly £16 or $20), which must be renewed every three months. There have been other, promising, and deeply necessary, expansions to social welfare during this time, alongside President Ramaphosa more broadly discussing the need to move forward beyond the current status quo and “forging a new social compact” (Chipkin and Vidojevic 2020; News24 2020). The new social compact Ramaphosa suggests should recall the 2002 Taylor Committee recommendations and draw on the increasing social awareness of inequalities demonstrated through community engagement such as food parcels and soup kitchens (Kretzmann 2020). Notably, the important community response to the crisis should not be a substitute for appropriate state responsibility. These basic food provisions are essential, and much needed during this time, but this social consciousness and responsibility must be translated into change that facilitates empowerment of choice and agency, possible through the implementation of Universal Basic Income.

Context Specific Delivery: Secure, Accessible, and Safe

The previous delivery of social grants via private company Cash Payment Services (CPS), a subsidiary of Net1, in partnership with Grindrod Bank, was fraught with corruption in the form of illegal deductions (Mail and Guardian 2014, 2015; Nicholson 2018). This activity was ongoing until 2018, with the awareness of the deductions since 2012. The company in charge of grant delivery had access to accounts allowing for cumulative small-scale deductions, meaning often the deductions would go unnoticed or unreported.

A- […] there were illegal deductions from their grants, for electricity and airtime, and for funeral policies and it was unauthorised, and then more than one funeral policy.
B- They were very sly, they would go to the beneficiaries and say, “We are going to give you a food parcel, will you sign this?”, but it wasn’t for a food parcel, you were actually signing for a deduction to be made from your account.
A- And sometimes they didn’t even sign anything, it would just come off their account. Because they are so happy about getting 400 rand, they don’t care about the 20 rand coming off, but its 20 rand off 17 million. (Black Sash Interview, 2019)

In 2018, the service delivery transitioned to the South African Post Office, and there are now issues with service delivery in terms of accessibility and safety. Through the transition to the Post Office as a service provider, a large number of existing pay points have been closed, restricting the number of places beneficiaries can actually access their grant (Back Sash Interview, 2019). So, on grant days, beneficiaries are faced with the challenge of accessing payments. Frequently this is a spatial obstacle that involves travel and prolonged wait times without proper services such as seats, shelter, toilets, or water. This means that too often elderly and/or disabled beneficiaries have to stand and wait in adverse weather conditions, for long periods of time in order to access their grants. Due to the physical demands of retrieving cash, beneficiaries sometimes send someone in their place or have someone accompany them for the journey (Back Sash Interview, 2019). Notably, a charge is incurred whichever way beneficiaries access the cash value of their grants, be it via transportation, time, energy, charges for withdrawal, or paying for collection by a third party.

A- It’s actually not much of a choice; it’s a choice of how much and how much time.
B- Beneficiaries tell us that grant days are stress days, stress days … So, it came with bank charges and transport costs but also costs to the dignity of the beneficiary because they don’t have the money in their hand anymore, they can’t go themselves. (Back Sash Interview, 2019)

The importance of the flexible delivery of the grant, spatially, but also by different means, including cash, is illustrated by the context specific nature of the service delivery. Notably, there is a need to expand the number of collection points for the grant to be collected in its cash value without a fee. With regard to context specific issues, there are several reasons why beneficiaries need to access the grant in cash form and without incurring withdrawal charges. In one example, cultural reasons were noted as a beneficiary wanted cash in order to be able to take it to her ancestors for it to be blessed (Back Sash representative A, Interview, 2019), while more generally the cash gives beneficiaries more autonomy in where to spend their money. This is important due to the high number of informal traders operating in townships (Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation 2017, 2018a, 2018b). When the cash was delivered via a greater number of pay points, on grant day beneficiaries would be able to buy from small traders operating their businesses nearby and at a special reduced rate (Back Sash Interview, 2020).

A- The beneficiaries say they miss it because now they have to go to the shop, they have to compete with people who work, people who have salaries, there’s no more special price for them. So, for them to have the cash gave them empowerment and decision making. (Back Sash Interview, 2019)

As previously noted, the move to the Post Office based delivery has increased the cost of accessing the grant for beneficiaries and reduced opportunities for beneficiaries to access produce at a lower cost than in formalised commercial premises, and without the additional time cost of accessing these spaces. This in turn has resulted in reduced customer footfall for small traders, which impacts on their income. Frequently, these groups are not separate and informal traders may also be grant beneficiaries who use the grant to supplement their income from their business.

A- I had a conversation with the chair of the informal trading association, and she said that most of her members are grant beneficiaries but they can’t disclose that because they use that income to actually supplement an income. So, it’s very challenging.
B- We say basic income grants, and governments say entrepreneurship is the solution, but then we say how do you expect people to start their own business with nothing? (Back Sash Interview, 2019)

There is an identifiable interdependence between grant recipients and informal traders, insofar as some informal traders are grant recipients (and this demonstrates an issue with the amount of the grant that is delivered and the economic demands on that individual) but also that informal traders offer a local, low-cost opportunity for many, but in particular grant beneficiaries, to shop for necessities. The positive impact of informal traders in the local economy, and in tackling poverty, is demonstrated through numerous studies (Saunyama 2013; Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation 2018b) which illustrate the importance of these traders and the interconnected nature of the economic situation faced by individuals living in townships.

Through the transition to Post Office delivery, there are clear costs to beneficiaries in terms of time, money, and importantly dignity. However, due to a minimal level of security at the Post Offices, there is also an increased risk to the safety of beneficiaries. On grant day these spaces are seen as an easy target for robberies, and beneficiaries are sometimes targeted after collecting their grant.

A- The Post Office are literally robbed every single month. People are killed.
B- Because there’s no security. That’s an added cost they have to have. They’re not going to provide that service.
A- They’ve actually shot people, and people get killed at these robberies.
B- In terms of supporting delivery, greater attention could be paid to ensuring the security of all individuals at these sites on grant days. The worsening levels of crime, and cash in transit heists is another purported reason cited by the government for moving away from a cash-based delivery. (Back Sash Interview, 2019)

However, a transition away from cash-based delivery is not context or service user appropriate, as demonstrated above. Critically, there is fundamental interconnectivity of issues to be considered in the case for Universal Basic Income in South Africa. This security issue should be seen in combination with the threats highlighted earlier regarding crime, gang violence, and gender-based violence. The poverty engineered by colonialism and apartheid has created and maintained robust and resilient institutional and societal barriers and racism which continues to oppress Black and Coloured communities in South Africa. Individuals from these communities routinely face a multiplicity of threats to their safety and security.

Spatial Social Justice

If you deny people their social assistance you deny their children education, you deny them food. (Back Sash representative B, Interview, 2019)

The normalisation of a Universal Basic Income Grant is important to underscore that different types of societal contribution are important – and not just those that contribute to profit making or economic growth. But also, in South Africa, the introduction of a UBIG could help address the persistence of survival crime and gang involvement, and create opportunities for education, leisure, and “meaningful” employment. It has the potential to be delivered in a way which increases the dignity, choice-making capabilities, and agency of recipients, which in turn can help support local businesses and facilitate the decentralisation of employment opportunities away from the central business district of Cape Town. However, the delivery of a UBIG must also be established through flexible, context specific service delivery in order to meet the needs of beneficiaries, in working towards the deconstruction of engineered poverty, structural violence, and spatial inequality, as an essential part of the ongoing fight for social justice.


[1] This piece is informed by research conducted in Cape Town in 2019 and uses an anonymous interview with representatives from the Black Sash Trust (referred to as Black Sash in text) which campaigns for a UBIG in South Africa. Black Sash has been operating for 65 years working towards social justice in South Africa. Participant A works in advocacy for the Trust and Participant B has recently left the Trust.

[2] The term “Coloured” was the South African government designation for persons of mixed heritage. It is used in this work in acknowledgement of how these designations are continued and influence the experiences of persons categorised with such labels.

[3] See in particular the work of the Black Sash Trust.


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