Policy in the Time of Pandemic: Social Transfers in South Africa during the Coronavirus National Lockdown

Alan Hirsch Thokozani Chilenga, Florencia Belvedere

This case study details the policy choices and decisions of the South African government to provide economic relief, through social grants, to vulnerable South Africans and those resident in South Africa to enable them to withstand the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The first phase of this relief was provided for six months in 2020. The most important and lingering decisions to mitigate the effects of the pandemic were made during this time. This case study presents the policy actors, processes, and decisions that characterized the social relief policy during this time. On 15 March 2020, South Africa declared a national state of disaster as a result of the rise in transmissions of the coronavirus. The national government convened a National Coronavirus Command Council and declared a 21-day national lockdown, beginning on 26 March 2020, as part of efforts to contain the spread of the virus. Urgent meetings and consultations were convened to enable balanced and important decision making about the measures required to assist millions of vulnerable individuals and households in South Africa. These measures included top-ups of existing social grants as well as provision of the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant in addition to existing social grants. The first phase of the SRD and top-up grants took place between May and October 2020. In addition, at least 250,000 food parcels were distributed over a fortnight in April 2020. In unravelling decision-making processes, the case study describes the range of policy actors, from the President to national government departments, research organizations, experts, and civil society organizations, that were consulted and contributed to the government’s social relief policy during this time. Particular attention is given to how these processes unfolded during a time of crisis and emergency and whether they were able to conform to ordinary consultation processes during an extraordinary time. The objective of this case study is to provide students with an overview of the policy issues, main government and non-government actors, and key decisions that led to the adoption and provision of social relief measures during the 2020 phase of the pandemic. The issues that this case study will provide for students’ critical analysis include: government’s perceptions of the available choices for social relief, including assumptions about other sources of support for the poor, and how political factors might have influenced outcomes; perceptions about the government’s fiscal space and the influence of such perceptions on decisions about the scope, amount, and duration of the SRD grant and grant top-ups; influences around the formal decision-making processes in South Africa during this time; and the impact of topping up existing social grants and implementing the SRD grant.

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