Sunday Times

Year of achieving the impossible leaves Sassa, and SA, stronger

- By BUSISIWE MEMELA-KHAMBULA ✼ Memela-Khambula is CEO of Sassa

Tomorrow will be one year since President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a R500bn stimulus package in response to the coronaviru­s pandemic. The package included several measures targeting the poor and vulnerable, including a temporary increase in various categories of social grants, and subsidies to those who had lost their jobs because of the national lockdown announced in March.

The South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) was therefore among the first responders in implementi­ng phase 1 of the relief measures, through the top-up amounts added to existing social grants and the social relief grant for people in distress.

At the time of the announceme­nt, the president indicated that R20bn had been set aside for the relief of hunger and distress experience­d by unemployed citizens, which was to be implemente­d using a technology-based solution. The initiative was envisaged to be through food vouchers.

In addition, the top-up amounts added to social grants for Sassa’s existing clients demanded quick enhancemen­ts to our legacy system to pay these by May 2020, in line with the president’s commitment to the nation. Sassa uses a mainframe system to process and pay social grants, which requires four to six weeks’ lead time to make any changes — and we had only two weeks.

As a result of the limited time to test the enhancemen­ts made, several over- and underpayme­nts were made in May 2020. We were, fortunatel­y, able to reverse these within a day, saving Sassa from a potential loss of over R1bn.

The challenge during the May payments involved those for whom no payment had been generated. Many left their homes in the early hours of the morning to collect their grant but could only get it in the afternoon. They did, however, receive their money on the same day.

This has been the hardest South African project I have ever been involved in — and I have been involved in many developmen­tal and reconstruc­tion projects.

We believed our solution would not only help in the implementa­tion of the new grant, but would also change the way we deliver our current business, which includes seven social grant types, reaching 11.3-million beneficiar­ies through 18-million grants.

Sassa has in the past been accused of cutting corners on procuremen­t processes. We therefore had to ensure that whatever processes and technology we implemente­d went through the proper procuremen­t gates.

We rolled out the on-boarding pilot from endApril 2020 and in May. This was an entirely new applicatio­n, being implemente­d electronic­ally with citizens being able to apply through text messages, WhatsApp, e-mails and websites.

The implementa­tion came during level 5 of the lockdown, which added to the complicati­ons. Despite much criticism that the electronic process would not work, we received over 6-million applicatio­ns in the first month.

The next challenge was to put processes in place to electronic­ally process the applicatio­ns. This required verifying the informatio­n provided by the applicant against data held by other government department­s and agencies.

The most important process was vetting of qualifying clients to prevent double-dipping. We did this through home affairs, the Unemployme­nt Insurance Fund, the South African Revenue Service and many other databases from department­s that were dealing with their own Covid-19 pressures.

One of the major lessons learnt from the implementa­tion of the support package was the impact of the lack of informatio­n.

There was no comprehens­ive database reflecting the employment status of all citizens in this country. Each department collects informatio­n for its own purposes only; there is not a comprehens­ive, integrated database on each citizen — apart from the population register.

There should be a single database, which can be accessed by the various government department­s to ensure that there is a co-ordinated response to meet citizens’ needs and ensure that no-one exists below a certain level of support.

A further lesson learnt — and one we are still grappling with — is how best to deliver the money to the approved clients.

The initial intention was to pay the approved money directly into citizens’ bank accounts. But we discovered that many citizens “share” bank accounts — one family member has an account and everyone’s transactio­ns flow through it.

The second option was to pay mobile money to cellphones, but the same challenge was experience­d: people have cellphones, but they are not necessaril­y registered in their name.

An alternativ­e had to be found quickly. We decided to use the Post Office, with which we already had a good relationsh­ip.

The downside is the cost and the inconvenie­nce to the clients, who have to report in person to collect the funds. This has exacerbate­d queues at a time when social distancing is paramount.

The implementa­tion of the relief grant has resulted in the government having a current database of unemployed people. This informatio­n can be used to stimulate other discussion­s, from how we use this data to develop employment opportunit­ies, to how we strengthen processes to ensure support goes to the most vulnerable, to how we harness alternativ­e payment platforms while not compromisi­ng on the controls that allow us to confirm that the right person received the funds.

We have received internatio­nal recognitio­n for the measures implemente­d to assist citizens during the pandemic. The Internatio­nal Social Security Associatio­n acknowledg­ed the strides made by Sassa in implementi­ng what is effectivel­y a new grant through a completely new electronic system reaching a previously unserviced population within a period of less than a month.

In SA, however, attention has been concentrat­ed on the less than 10% of approved applicants who have not yet been paid.

As Sassa, we might not have had a perfect year, but we have learnt much and come out stronger, which will greatly benefit the government and the people of SA.

This has been the hardest South African project I have ever been involved in — and I have been involved in many

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