As the most financially vulnerable South Africans apply for the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant made available as part of government’s R500-billion pandemic response, protecting their personal information should be paramount.
The same applies to the millions of social grant beneficiaries whose personal information is already in the system.
“There must be heightened vigilance against the possibility of any misuse of the personal information of grant applicants and beneficiaries. If personal information is compromised, it can be used to steal grant money or make unauthorised or unlawful deductions from social grants. This simply cannot be allowed to happen,” says Hoodah Abrahams-Fayker, national advocacy manager at the Black Sash.
Abuse of grant beneficiaries’ personal information is not a new phenomenon.
Take for example the experience of Mamma Siski, a pensioner from Wolmaranstad in the North-West Province. Soon after receiving her new social grant card from the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa), she noticed that money was gone from her account even before she had collected her grant. A mini-statement showed a deduction of R190 by a named entity and there was another deduction from a bank that could not be identified.
Mamma Siski was not the only one affected. Abrahams-Fayker says that the Black Sash received numerous complaints from across South Africa that money was leaving the Sassa accounts of grant beneficiaries through debit orders or EFTs.
“Through evidence collected by the Black Sash and our community-based partners, it was apparent that the private entity paying the grants on behalf of SASSA had shared information enabling its subsidiaries and others in its network to sell beneficiaries financial and other products,” says Abrahams-Fayker.
She says the Black Sash fought for many years to resolve the problem, eventually turning to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that Sassa had a duty to protect the privacy of grant beneficiaries’ personal information, which could not be used for any purpose other than the payment of grants.
The company concerned is no longer involved in social grant payments. However, the need for appropriate measures to be put in place in the current partnership with the South African Post Office (SAPO), and in any future grant payment partnership, is as pressing now as it was then.
With South Africa suffering from the economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is essential to make certain that beneficiaries receive their grants in full.
“The intended recipient are the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society, and it is imperative they receive the relief meant for them. Protecting their personal information is an important way of ensuring this,” says Abrahams-Fayker.
This is the intention behind the collaboration between leading African law firm Bowmans and the Black Sash, as part of the Black Sash’s #KnowYourRights and #HandsOffOurGrants programmes.
The two organisations have joined forces to draft a booklet to train paralegals, especially those working in rural areas, to advise social grant applicants and beneficiaries on their rights, including the right to the protection of their personal information in the Sassa system.
Fatima Laher, head of pro bono at Bowmans, says the firm is proud to be part of this worthy project. “It speaks to our vision of ensuring access to justice and finding innovative ways of using our areas of expertise to make this a reality. We consider the protection of social grant beneficiaries and their personal information to be a human rights matter of the utmost importance.”
The booklet, titled The Protection of Personal Information of Social Grant Beneficiaries, is currently available electronically on Bowmans’ website. The intention is to distribute hard copies to paralegals assisting social grant applicants and beneficiaries as soon as practically possible.
“In the meantime, it is important to provide people with information on their rights to protection when it comes to their personal information and what to do if these are breached,” concludes Laher.
Members of the public are invited to share the booklet with those who could benefit from the information it provides.