An article I worked with on September 9, 2013 with my colleague Chelsea Geach
Pensioners in Cape Town fear they are being left to starve because many have not received their monthly grant – thanks to a bureaucratic bungle.
A number of elderly people are without an income this month because the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) failed to perform the home visits needed to re-register pensioners over 75 for their social grants.
Home visits are for people who are unable to get to the Sassa offices.
Despite Sassa’s repeated assurances that social grants would not be stopped until home visits had been completed, pensions due on September 1 were not paid.
He last received his pension at the end of July – and is sinking deeper and deeper into credit card debt as he struggles to pay for food.
“This is outrageous as people over 75 in particular are being left to starve,” Benson told the Cape Argus.
He was particularly angry at Sassa’s repeated assurances that the grant would not lapse until all home visits had been completed.
“They said not to worry. They promised people that they wouldn’t do this. The poor old pensioners can’t go on strike. Everybody is struggling and they’re getting no sympathy.”
However, Sassa regional manager Waldemar Terblanche said that 7 500 of the 9 000 beneficiaries needing home visits in the Western Cape had been visited. Terblanche said the process of re-registering all social grant beneficiaries was due to be concluded by the end of July, but lack of capacity caused the home visits to fail to meet this deadline.
“The arrangement was that the grants of the remaining beneficiaries would not be suspended until Sassa completed the re-registration through home visits,” Terblanche said. “We are currently investigating the matter.”
He said the situation would be rectified and arrangements would be made for those beneficiaries to be paid by no later than September 13.
When Benson went to the bank to collect his money at the beginning of this month, he found his account empty and was told that “numbers of social grant old-age pensions have not been paid this month”. Benson immediately alerted his attorneys because a previous re-registration error had left him without money for three months.
“A Sassa representative informed my attorneys that until pensioners in institutions have been re-registered, no home visits to persons over 75 can take place. He said they wouldn’t be able to pay us for two or three months or possibly longer.”
Benson said should the money not be in his account by Monday morning, he would instruct his attorneys to take further steps.
Kensington couple Edna Williams, 77, and her husband, Martin, 78, have run out of money.
Their last pension payment was on August 1, and now they have to phone their children for help when there is no food or light in their home. Their son, Herschel, phoned Sassa and was told beneficiaries would have to wait until next month to be paid.
“Sassa promised that they’re still coming, that there’s no need to panic, and yet they have not come,” he said.
“My parents don’t want to be dependent on me, but now there’s no income for them this month. That places a lot of stress on old people.”
Herschel bought his parents R200 electricity because they could not afford to buy it themselves. “It is not nice to open our hands and ask our children for help. We feel like beggars,” said Edna.
Arthritis has confined her to a wheelchair and she cannot support her own weight. Her husband of 50 years, Martin, has to wash her and dress her, despite struggling with arthritis himself. The couple can no longer make the trip to the city centre to re-register for their social grant, and were relying on a home visit to secure their R1 280 monthly pension each.
“We can’t survive without it,” said Edna.
In January, Sassa published a notice stating that all beneficiaries older than 75 who were in an institution or too frail to come to a registration centre in person were entitled to a home visit. They could ask for a visit by calling a toll-free number or by emailing Sassa.
The notice said: “Please do not panic. Sassa will definitely visit you at home to re-register you for your social grant. YOUR SOCIAL GRANT WILL NOT BE STOPPED UNTIL YOU ARE RE-REGISTERED.”
Arnold van Blerk, a concerned resident representing the Williams family and two other elderly couples in Kensington, said efforts to follow up with the agency had proved fruitless.
The home visits were scheduled to take place between mid-February and the end of March. Six months later, the pensioners Van Blerk represents still have not been visited, and their monthly grant payments have stopped.
Francis Jacobs, co-ordinator of the Western Cape Older Person’s Forum, said: “During the community meetings that we have held over the past month – everywhere from the Overberg, to Delft, Elsies River, Atlantis, Langa and Cape Town – all the people have the same complaints.”
Jacobs said the biggest problem with people not receiving their pensions was that they were not able to get through to Sassa on its toll-free number, which caused more frustration.
“We had a big meeting in Cape Town last week and invited Sassa to send a representative to address the people’s concerns, but they did not respond to our requests.”
Anne van Niekerk, director of NOAH, an organisation that works with the elderly all over the city, said they too had invited Sassa to a meeting, but it did not respond.
Van Niekerk said the re-registration was good because it was a way for the department to curb fraud.
“Although the intention is good, the problem is capacity. I don’t think they have enough people and the toll-free number goes unanswered. So the frustration is about information. People need to have their questions answered.”
For 75-year-old Richard Benson, the R1 260 monthly grant is all that stands between him and his next meal.