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. With most state distribution programs lagging (land, housing, employment), social grants have become the primary 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) contracted a multinational corporation, Net1 UEPS Technologies (Net1), to pay non-contributory, means-tested social to children under 18, adults over 60, and people with disabilities. Paradoxically, this ambitious and progressive redistributive policy – a grand experiment in the tradition of social welfare and cash transfer – has proven to be not only fraught with risk and insecurity but also incapable of addressing the crippling legacies of apartheid. Social grant recipients have had to contend with a steady rise in what has come to be called “deductions,” small, unauthorized transactions for loans, insurance, electricity, and airtime, often deducted by Net1 – the very corporation charged with paying grants.
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.
My work shows how cash transfers are not a direct and unproblematic form of personal support, but serve to reproduce forms of precarity and vulnerability that the grant system seeks to eradicate.
“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.