SA could easily feed its poor. Instead we have a corona food-aid ...

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SA could easily feed its poor. Instead we have a corona food-aid racket

Money isn’t the problem, it’s corruption, since the state refuses to implement a very simple solution

Columnist
Of the many urgent reasons for immediately increasing the child support grant, the most urgent is that many ordinary households face hunger and starvation as lockdown continues.
Do we need another reason to help? Of the many urgent reasons for immediately increasing the child support grant, the most urgent is that many ordinary households face hunger and starvation as lockdown continues.
Image: AFP/Wikus de Wet

If our cabinet understood how corruption works in SA it would have approved the topping up of the child support grant – and even the old age grant – last Wednesday already. It didn’t. That’s because the call by academics, NGOs, activists and even the business sector for the government to top up the well-established grant by R500 for six months is presented by both sides as a “problem”. It’s not. It’s a solution.

There are many urgent and compelling reasons the cabinet should immediately increase the child support grant – the most urgent being that many ordinary households face hunger and starvation as lockdown continues. There is near-universal agreement on this, even among cabinet members.

Yet, on Wednesday, the cabinet wrung its hands all day and could not agree to go ahead with the proposal. Why wait? That’s largely because if you are a cabinet member and activists tell you to increase child support grants by R6.2bn a month then alarm bells go off: it’s massive expenditure. And expenditure is a “problem”, right? In its warranted wariness of ratings downgrades, the cabinet’s first question is: where’s the money going to come from?

Money is short. As Judge Dennis Davis pointed out in the Financial Mail, “the 2020 budget was predicated on GDP growth this year of 0.9% and the collection of R1.4-trillion in revenue”. There is no way we are going to collect that. “If that revenue drops by 5%, SA will have a R70bn shortfall.”

Lack of money is not SA’s problem, though. It’s lack of care and preservation of the money we have that’s a problem. We have stolen and defrauded our way through the state’s cash pile. In October 2019 President Cyril Ramaphosa told the Financial Times’s annual Africa forum that the decade of corruption under Jacob Zuma cost SA up to R1-trillion.

So the way to get the cabinet to urgently increase the child support grant is to show them that, by biting the bullet and approving the increase in their meeting on Monday, they will save money. What civil society is offering them is a solution to the problem of fraud, theft and corruption and not just calling for them to spend extra money.

Corruption in SA is laughably straightforward. It starts with the dodgy politician. Then he brings in the middleman and woman. If government spends R400m on food parcels, for example, then the politician and middleman are probably taking a R100m of that in bribes. That’s why there are many politicians nicknamed “Minister 10%”, 20%, or even 50%. That’s their price. Then the food parcels don’t even go to the hungry. They go to their friends, relatives and supporters.

Right now there are millions of food parcels allegedly being distributed to the poor across the nation. In most cases it’s a massive nationwide scam that enriches friends of politicians.

An example of how it works at the lower levels is what happened when Nelson Mandela died and the state poured millions into putting on a proper farewell for the icon. First the politicians whispered in their friends’ ears that there was money to be made. The friends then arrived with their services – a bus to ferry mourners to a stadium for a memorial service, food for the crowds, musicians for a bit of atmosphere, event hire, sound systems.

In the Eastern Cape they didn’t even bother to put on the events and add a massive mark-up. They just put in the invoices, did none of the work and went home to count the cash.

At the highest levels, the middle-man corruption model works without even the need for declaration of a disaster. Think of the “middle men” introduced out of the blue at SAA and at Eskom – in both cases linked to the Gupta family and by extension the man in the Union Buildings – for deals to go through.

Declaration of a state of disaster with the Covid-19 pandemic opens up the same opportunities. Protocols are flouted. No tenders are called for.

Right now there are millions of food parcels allegedly being distributed to the poor across the nation. In most cases it’s a massive nationwide scam that enriches friends of politicians. None of those food parcels (if they do actually exist) will make it to the poor. It’s a corruption party.

The easiest way to remove this theft of millions of rand is by giving money to the beneficiaries themselves. SA has one of the most sophisticated cash-transfer systems in the world. With a top-up to the child support grant the money would go straight to those who look after these unfortunate kids. No middle men, no corruption.

Whenever we’ve had incidents of protest these past few days they have not been about hunger per se, but about corruption or perceived corruption in the distribution of food parcels. This was certainly the case in Mitchells Plain last week. One woman claimed other areas had been given food, “but not us”.

Cutting out the inefficient, corrupt network set up to distribute food parcels – and spread the coronavirus, ironically – is a solution for the government. It puts money and buying power in ordinary people’s hands and pockets. It’s the most compelling argument for increasing the grant. It will save us all gazillions. It’s a solution, not a problem.