Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu said the department should have planned better to avoid the frantic scramble for services seen outside the Bellville Sassa office where police used water cannons on the sick and disabled to enforce social distancing on Friday.
“It shouldn’t even have taken a minister to come here,” she said after an emergency meeting with Sassa CEO Totsi Memela and other officials.
Zulu added many factors had contributed to the “endless queues” at Sassa’s Bellville office, but ultimately it was her department’s responsibility.
Problems included Sassa not being able to use community halls as it did before they were shut due to Covid-19, a shortage of doctors in the Western Cape for medical assessments and an increase in applications for child grants as parents lose their jobs during the pandemic.
She said Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Social Development had also summoned the department to explain itself.
“I think we should have been able to plan better,” said Zulu.
On Friday morning, people stood in the rain close to each other as the queue went around the block.
The police tried to distance themselves from each in line with Covid-19 health advisories, and to keep their masks on.
At one point, the police said they would not open if people did not comply with social distancing.
Sassa’s office manager in Elsie’s River, Munro Jephta, arrived to help, as his office was quieter, and he used the police’s public address system to explain procedures to those standing in line.
Afterwards, he helped those queuing, taking and checking documents, as police officers and Sassa officials collected bundles of IDs and Sassa cards, which were handed over to officials in the building.
After a long wait, the police called names from a bundle of forms brought out by Sassa officials, containing dates for people’s medical examinations and dates for when they must come back.
Loadshedding also slowed things down for the already reduced number of staff working due to health and safety regulations.
Just before Zulu arrived at around midday, a number of plastic chairs were found for people leaning on crutches in the rain.
The plan was to attend to the disabled people first, so people in wheelchairs and crutches lined up accordingly on the pavement.
Police tape was wrapped around the overflowing wheelie bins near the entrance to create a vacant space for people to go through the front door.
When Zulu arrived, she walked to look at the end of the queue, while people shouted at her: “We are hungry.”
She went back in to the building for a meeting, but after several warnings to social distance, the police let loose on the sick and disabled with the water cannon.
Afterwards, they carried on helping Sassa officials call out the names of people whose future appointment dates were ready, and monitoring the situation.
Zulu defended the police using water cannons to get people to keep a safe distance from each other, saying the lack of social distancing was a problem.
Western Cape Social Development MEC Sharna Fernandez issued a statement to express her dismay at events on Friday.
“I condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of water cannons by the South African Police Services against our society’s most vulnerable, who have queued at Sassa offices today.
“These citizens are desperately seeking assistance from Sassa regarding the termination of all Sassa temporary disability grants, and it is not their fault that they have been failed in this way,” she said.
People were still waiting outside the Sassa office in Bellville by Friday afternoon.
Fernandez added she was supposed to have a meeting with Zulu on Friday to see how the Western Cape government could help, but this was postponed to Monday.
The ANC in the province blamed the Western Cape government for not making community halls available.
However, the City of Cape Town said it closed the halls as part of its Covid-19 strategy, and those offered were either rejected by Sassa, or it asked the City to install infrastructure for its systems.
Many of the applicants said they used to go to community halls for any Sassa business, and it was more convenient than coming all the way to Bellville.
Black Sash asked that the temporary disability grant be extended again, after it was extended during the lockdown.
Zulu said that would not be possible.
“If I could, and if the fiscus was not under such pressure … I would definitely be saying ‘no, let’s just extend it’.”
Memela said many of the applicants were already in the system and it should just be a matter of re-verifying their application through the doctors’ appointments they were being given.
She added the Sassa would work on digitising its systems so that people did not need to come into the office at all.
Those who need immediate assistance can get the social relief of distress grant, if they qualify and if they are previous recipients.
She also called for better cooperation with the Department of Health regarding the medical assessment and access to applicants’ medical records, many of which are already captured in databases.