Three weeks into an extensive national lockdown, the South African government has yet to announce any concrete economic relief for the country’s poorest households. This is notwithstanding compelling economic analysis that demonstrates that the best way to distribute relief quickly to those most in need is to top up child support grants.
South Africa’s public health response to the COVID-19 crisis has been commendable, twinning an extensive lockdown with active screening and tracing measures. In mid-April, confirmed infections have been far lower than originally anticipated.
However, in some vital respects South Africa’s response has been constitutionally deficient. Across the country, there have been appalling reports of brutality by law enforcement officials and continued unlawful evictions. And while comparatively, South Africa’s public health response has been evidence-driven and swift, its economic response has lagged behind others’ (Namibia, for example, has rolled an emergency income grant to support households).
The COVID-19 crisis has dire economic consequences, felt most acutely by financially precarious households . The government’s economic interventions have principally targeted businesses and the formal sector, and are far from sufficient.
Powerful economic analysis shows that the best way to mitigate harsh economic consequences for the most vulnerable households is to increase the value of monthly payments of over 12 million child support grants. The analysis demonstrates that existing infrastructure is well suited, that the grant reaches 80% of informal worker households, and that it already targets the most vulnerable households. A group of international and civil society organisations (including UNICEF) and academics wrote to President Ramaphosa, imploring him to increase the child support grant by R500 for six months. By mid-April 2020, a petition had almost 600000 signatories.
On 15 April 2020 – more than two weeks after the proposal was first made – cabinet met to discuss it. Tito Mboweni, South Africa’s Minister of Finance, indicated that a temporary adjustment to the child support grant – and, possibly, to the old-age pension grant – is being considered, but no announcements have yet been made. Reportedly, Mr Mboweni has previously purported to veto the increase of child support grants fearing that, at an estimated R6.2 billion per month, it would be too great a financial burden.
The legal argument for the government’s obligation to top up the child support grant can be advanced in a number of ways.
First, the Constitution commits to substantive equality, and to addressing material disadvantage. Households in South Africa have vastly different abilities to weather the financial hardships of the COVID-19 crisis, which has made the country’s already gaping inequality more acute. Section 27 of the Constitution sets out a justiciable right to appropriate social assistance, while section 28 provides that in any matter concerning a child, the child’s best interests are of paramount importance. The Constitutional Court has recognized that for many, social grants are “the only hope of ever living in the material conditions that the Constitution’s values of dignity, freedom and equality promise.” That hope must be prioritized for those most vulnerable: in its pivotal Grootboom judgment, the Court recognised that the “poor are particularly vulnerable and their needs require special attention”.
Relevant legislation bolsters this. The Disaster Management Act (relied on by the government to regulate the lockdown) requires that measures to reduce vulnerability (defined as conditions which increase a community’s susceptibility to the impact of hazards, including economic factors) must be taken.
South Africa’s poorest households are doubly at risk: economic and health vulnerabilities cannot be separated. We have seen elsewhere that poorer communities suffer the health effects of COVID-19 most acutely, and that economic vulnerability has immediate and long-term public health consequences. Already in South Africa, desperate protests around accessing food have broken out – with hunger and malnutrition in turn posing risks to the immune system’s ability to stave off or fight infections.
Finally, the right to equality is also implicated in the gendered dimension of child support grants. Women – who disproportionately carry the burden of caregiving – are the majority of beneficiaries of that grant. The lockdown has led to a horrifying increase of gender-based violence. An increase to the child support grant cannot address the many drivers of this violence, but it can at least provide more than only material relief – not least because research has shown that the child support grant boosts women’s decision-making power within households.