Taken For Granted
Comprising $11 billion per year and supporting 18 million citizens (33% of the population), South Africa’s social welfare program is, by far, the largest in the developing world by GDP. With most state distribution programs lagging (land, housing, employment), social grants have become a critical way that poor Black South Africans experience a break from the dispossession of their colonial and apartheid past.
In 2012, the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) converted an ostensibly public function to a private one: they contracted a multinational corporation, Net1 UEPS Technologies (Net1), to pay social grants. I show how the owner of Net1, an apartheid-era, sanctions-busting techie, built a grant payment system that transformed these social assistance payments into collateral for debt. Vulnerable mothers, pensioners and people with disabilities were coerced into accepting loans from the very same firm that paid their social grants. Such loans were completely risk-free for the lender, who controlled financial flows and could deduct repayments automatically before grantees received their money. As such, my work examines how racist banking systems developed under apartheid continue to constitute social welfare payment today.
My research explores a compelling puzzle: social grants serve as both symbols of democratic futures, and real sites of vulnerability and expropriation in the present. In development theory and policy, universal basic income (UBI) and cash transfers have gained popularity, but South Africa demonstrates the sheer impossibility of addressing centuries of state-sponsored racism, segregation and poverty through the distribution of social welfare. These small monthly payments fail to provide the basis of a new “free” and “just” nation. Rather, the social grant program has materially reproduced racial and economic difference through a new regime of spatial and technological politics.
Torkelson E (2020) "Collateral Damages: Cash Transfer and Debt Transfer in South Africa." World Development 126.
“Social Grants and the Green Card.” Cutting Edge, SABC, 27 March 2018. Researcher and script writer with Esley Philander, Colleen Crawford Cousins, and Johan Abrahams.
“Deductions from Social Grants: How it All Works.” Daily Maverick Podcast, Cliff Central Radio, 7 March 2017.
“The World Bank’s Role in SA’s Social Grant Payment System.” GroundUp, 23 March 2017.
“Sophia’s Choice: Farm Worker has to Decide which Child to Feed.” GroundUp, 15 March 2017.
“Deductions from Social Grants: How it All Works.” GroundUp, 3 March 2017.