Exploring technopolitics and social grants in South Africa – Fellows’ seminar by Natasha Vally

6 March 2024

“Technology is not neutral. When we develop a technological intervention we are doing the work of designating the problems and solutions. Technologies create particular relationships,” said Natasha Vally of the Department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town. “Technology can initiate change but also mask what needs changing. What does it mask, map, expose? When do we adjust to thinking of the problem and not just the technology-as-solution.”

Iso Lomso Fellow Natasha Vally during her seminar on 6 February 2024

Vally explained that technologies in the social-assistance system are often considered only as a tool to get grants to people. However, technologies of grant administration and payment inscribe, reify and transform relationships. Digital grant application and payment platforms and associated hardware (re)create relationships between people, objects, institutions and ideologies. “When we consider technologies as only a means to an end, then we risk techno-utopianism and obscure the complexities of technological mediation. As part of my project, I seek to ask – how did the pandemic and related technological changes around grants shift the broader social-assistance sphere?”

Vally is an Iso Lomso fellow and was presenting her first seminar in what she described as a “key moment in the social grant milieu in South Africa”.

“45% of all South African’s receive grants,’ she explained. “That’s 18 million people. An additional 10 million began to receive the Social Relief Grant of R350 during COVID-19. Grants cover 60% of household expenditure for the poorest households and 70% of children in the country receive them. They sustain both families and the economy.”

She explained that social grants are monthly cash transfers from the state to individuals, administered by SASSA (the South African Social Security Agency) and the Department of Social Development. They are non-contributory and don’t rely on proof of any behavioural requirements (like attending school or being vaccinated) but some are means-test based.

The Child and Older Person’s Grants are the largest. The Child Grant of R510 per month is paid up to 18 years but can be extended to 21. Vally explained that it is different from other countries in that they follow the child recognising the devastation of the HIV/AIDS denialism era which created many child-headed households and also that caregivers are not necessarily biological parents – so the grant is paid to the primary caregiver.

The Older Person’s Grant comprises 20% of the total and includes nearly 4 million recipients at an amount of R2090 per month. They are not means tested but purely based on age. Then there are also Disability, Grant-in-Aid, Foster Child, Care Dependency and War Veterans grants.

“For most recipients grants make up the majority of their income.”

Cutting-edge system

Vally explained that in 2012 SASSA contracted a private company, Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), to design a standardised national social-assistance infrastructure. The system was promoted as the epitome of technological progress and innovation, connecting advancements in banking and biometric machinery.

CPS was a subsidiary of Net1 which was listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. “In 2013 this contract was 42% of their revenue and worth R10 billion.”

The system they designed was presented as the hi-tech future of social assistance, however, it proved to be messy in the field causing huge backlogs in registration and technical glitches at payment sites along with systematic deductions from claimants’ accounts and data sharing amongst Net1 subsidiary companies. (Vally spent a year witnessing this first hand in Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga Province.)

“Despite this by the end of the first year, 19 million people had been registered – fingerprinted and documented, with their signatures and photos digitised.” The information stored on claimants was more than that for normal bank cards but there was no choice but to biometrically register – no registration equalled no grant.

Claimants could also receive their payments at retailers and these shops began to market specifically to force people to buy goods while collecting their grants to avoid waiting in long grants-only queues. It also meant retailers needed cash on site causing additional inefficiencies and security issues.

But CPS and Net1 were also involved in some clearly dodgy and illegal practices including making and processing the machines and running a mobile banking company themselves in a closed loop, and directly offering people loans with very high interest rates (up to 50%) and repayments being taken off their grants and also airtime, while they were queueing for grants. People accepted these additional services as part of the official system.

Over the six years of privatisation, CPS was therefore embroiled in court cases and malfeasance. And they didn’t tender again – “because by that stage they had access to extensive data and had entwined people into schemes in which they could make more money”.

By 2018, the government rejected the privatisation of social assistance and instituted a payment and registration system administered through the South African Post Office and its banking division Postbank.

However, the Post Office System failed and will no longer be distributing grants as of April this year. This means distribution will be via ATMs (something still not ideal for many due to proximity issues and bank charges) and retailers.

Vally was involved from 2020 in a project which sought to explore these shifts in a moment of transition that allowed for detailed insight into the changes and motivations for maintaining certain processes. She highlighted that her academic work increasingly involved her in advocacy and organisational work around grants. This work with claimants reiterated that the everyday practices of grant delivery are immensely generative as sites of sociality and politics, and became the springboard for a broader project asking and analysing questions like what were the social-grant technologies introduced, accelerated and facilitated; what happens when state and private entities fail; and, what is it like to be a grant recipient when your only access is mediated by technology? She will analyse the shifts in knowledge production, grants as a right/claim on the state, and the ways the money gets or doesn’t get to the people which tell us about resistance and failures of the system.

“I’m trying to emphasise what has been marginalised in thinking about grants,” she explained.

“For claimants grants are spent on food, healthcare, education, housing, water and transport,” she added. “People are having to use cash transfers to subsidise what should be provided by the state. Of course, it might be cheaper to provide housing or other services, but the romanticisation of cash persists.”

She also emphasised the broader political issues.

“During apartheid state service delivery was a way of pressurising the apartheid state which was seen as a cohesive and legitimate enemy. The end of apartheid coincided with the global push to neoliberalism which included a push towards technology-centred economies. Through electricity and water metres people were given individualised access to services – but this puts responsibility on the individual so that collective resistance is not ideologically cohesive or practical. It moves the politics of liberation to responsibilism.”

“It’s a form of racial capitalism,” she continued. “Obviously I’m not against social welfare but the promoters of cash transfers advocate neoliberal logic and the inclusion of all people in the financial system – a way to bank the unbanked. People don’t necessarily want more technology. And it might all be a misdiagnosis about how and what form social assistance should take. Such problem/solution thinking doesn’t take the claimants into account.”

“However,” she concluded, “the aim is not to put forward an ideal system – we don’t know what that is. I’m pushing against the idea of an ideal.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph:  Noloyiso Mtembu



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