Opinion | Open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa: It’s time to fire Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu

Dear Mr President

The Covid-19 pandemic caught the entire globe by surprise, and despite this, South Africans willingly joined the fight back in March.

The pandemic has had severe effects on the populations of the world – economic collapse, hunger, and poverty have been exacerbated in countries already struggling with internal issues such as inequality, high unemployment rates, corruption, mismanagement, looting and last but not least, a lack of political will. This is the nub of my letter to you.

By the time you announced the lockdown, signs of crippling poverty, hunger, and unemployment had already been hogging headlines. Millions of people were food insecure even before the announcement of the initial Covid-19 lockdown of 21 days. Back then, one of the few things that South Africans were allowed to do, was leave their homes to access their Sassa grants.

It therefore never made sense, Mr President, for Sassa offices to be completely closed during the lockdown when it is an agency of Government that is critical in implementing the Disaster Management Act (DMA).

The Democratic Alliance (DA) called for Sassa offices to be prioritized for personal protective equipment (PPE) and be opened immediately when cries could be heard from disability grant applicants, from mothers who had just given birth, from those who had just turned 60 and had hopes of staving off hunger by applying for the Old Age Grant, these sectors of society were devastated.

We appealed to Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu, but sadly these appeals fell on deaf ears.

I was one of those South Africans and public representatives who heaved a sigh of relief when you made the announcement to aid the many millions of unemployed via the special Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant of R350.

This money, along with the desperately needed food parcels, would go a long way in relieving hunger for many families in distress.

However, applications for the grant were to be submitted through online platforms, and therefore applicants would need access to a phone/gadget, airtime, know how, etc.

South Africa is a country where unemployment has hit the rural, remote part of the country hard – which is where the Sassa offices come in handy for the poor and vulnerable, and where access to the necessary technology to apply for the grants are not a given.

In a bid to circumvent these challenges, Minister Lindiwe Zulu announced that volunteers from government agencies such as the National Development Agency (NDA) and the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) would be deployed in rural areas to help those who could not apply. These volunteers were to be trained and given gadgets to help applicants access the unemployment grant. To this day, I have not heard of a single volunteer who has helped SRD grant applicants access the grant.

What in fact happened was that Sassa offices, with already trained staff who were earning their salaries and who could be equipped with protective gear, were closed and desperate potential beneficiaries were not able to take advantage of Government’s otherwise welcome intervention. Armed with this reality, the DA again called for the Sassa offices to be opened – to no avail.

Public representatives and ordinary South Africans came to the rescue by applying on behalf of the unemployed – as the system allowed this. Why did Minister Zulu not open the Sassa offices?

Almost three weeks after the announcement of the grant, only 10 applicants received their grant. To date, there are still vulnerable South Africans who have not received this grant because of supposed “systems glitches”, lack of proper communications to the applicants about how the system works, Sassa call centres simply not functioning and again, the sad and tragic lack of political will.

Minister Zulu and the CEO of Sassa, Busisiwe Memela-Khambula, have given long-winded explanations of why people have not received the grant, yet no solutions to how they can receive it to put food on the table for their families.

The government food parcel saga has been widely reported on. The Minister seems to have no way or will of ensuring that public representatives and officials do what they are supposed to do other than stealing food parcels meant to support the poor and vulnerable.

We urged the Minister and her Department to launch an investigation into the brazen theft of food parcels by the politically connected, and again these calls were met with arrogance and ignored.

Instead of investigating the looting and supporting efforts by good Samaritans to feed the poor, the Minister instead thought it wise to block food distribution by NGOs that have been doing this work for years, with her now-infamous draft regulations. With one stroke of her pen, the Minister halted the entire country’s efforts to assist the poor, as people were harassed by SAPS, had their permits confiscated, were loaded in police vans, and had their food taken away.

This is all due to a Minister who was preaching partnership among all stakeholders to deal with what was, and still is, a food insecurity crisis. It is for these reasons, Mr President, that I strongly believe that there is a lack of political will on the part of the Minister to address the plight of the poor – something I find deeply concerning.

I am reminded of the Minister’s selfish comment that she made in the early days of the lockdown, when she said, “stay at home if you can, I am finding it hard to stay at home! Virus, leave us alone, we have a life to live”. The poor and vulnerable that the Minister has the honour to serve, were nowhere in her mind then, and they don’t seem to be now, which just means that she has no interest in serving these persons.

It would take the DA and NGOs turning to the courts for the Minister, who asked South Africans to partner with Government in feeding the poor, to allow these same South Africans and NGOs to distribute food to the millions of desperate people. According to the Department of Social Development’s (DSD) own presentations, more and more South Africans are joining the ranks of the food insecure and this situation is set to get worse as the lockdown continues and even after it is lifted.

There has not, according to presentations to the portfolio committee on Social Development, been any concrete plans to address the food insecurity matter, other than inviting South Africans to partner with the Department.

Then there was the challenge with the Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres that left these centres in the dark as to their reopening and left hundreds of thousands of mothers worried about where they will leave their children as more sections of the economy started to reopen.

The Minister would only have her first meeting with the sector on 26 May to create work streams that would work on how to move forward in the sector. Again, the sector had to approach the courts for it to have any chance of knowing where it was headed.

For many centres, the reopening of the sector came too late, as many had to close their doors permanently. All because the Minister seemingly had no desire to listen to their pleas.

The above and many other matters are indicative of a Minister who is obsessed with power, is out of touch with the challenges facing the people she has been mandated to serve, will do anything to show that the buck stops with her – no matter how that affects the poor and vulnerable, about who the Constitution is very clear – they have a right to food, and children have a right to education.

Surely a Minister who took pride in her mandate and whose Department has a very unfortunate history of being run by the courts, would do everything in her power to ensure she changes this precedent.

In the spirit of protecting the poor and the vulnerable from their rights being further violated and giving them access to services and resources budgeted for, and saving government money lost through cost orders, I ask you, Mr President, to relieve Minister Lindiwe Zulu from her duty as Minister of Social Development immediately and find a Minister who will bring some dignity and fortitude to this vital Department by ensuring that those it’s mandated to protect and serve are being taken care of.