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Nosisi Mayamo’s voice wavered as she told me that halfway through the month, she ran out of money for electricity. She had also run out of food.

Nosisi Mayamo, 64, at the Dimbaza Society for the Aged’s service center in Dimbaza, Eastern Cape. © 2023 Taurai Maduna/Human Rights Watch

Mayamo, 64, lives with her 16 grandchildren in a damp, two-bedroom house in Dimbaza, Eastern Cape. Three of her eight children have died, and the remaining five moved to Cape Town to look for work. Only one found a job.

Mayamo spent half her life living under apartheid, which denied her a good education, decent work, and the ability to save for older age. Her household’s only financial support comes from government social grants: the Older Persons Grant for herself and Child Support Grants for her grandchildren.

“It’s a very tough situation,” she said. “A lot of people think because of the grants, I should be able to afford things, but we have so much we need to do with that money. The children are always running out of school shoes.”

The Older Persons Grant makes up a sizeable proportion of the government’s budget for social grants and goes to approximately four million people age 60 and older. The government describes it as “a grant to see you through your old age.” It is not designed to support whole families, yet many older people, like Mayamo, use it to support their unemployed adult children or supplement the meagre Child Support Grant, a mere R510 per month, for their grandchildren. A new basic income grant for everyone ages 18 to 59 would relieve pressure on such households’ limited resources.

Even setting aside familial expenses, the Older Persons Grant is not enough to support a decent standard of living for the single older person it is intended for.

At R2,090 per month for those ages 60 to 74 and R2,110 for those 75 and older, it is one of the highest social grants available in the country. But it is still less than half the R4,474 they would earn each month working 40 hours per week at the national minimum wage, and the Global Living Wage Coalition’s assessment of a living wage in rural South Africa of R4,876. Meanwhile, the Decent Standard of Living project has calculated that a single person in South Africa needs nearly three times as much, R6,034 per month, for a decent standard of living.

Rising costs have hit older people’s pockets hard, just as they have everyone else’s. Annual inflation averaged 6 percent in 2023 but prices soared for some items, with potatoes 52 percent and eggs 38 percent more expensive by the end of the year. Any annual increase in the Older Persons Grant in the upcoming national budget that fails to reflect these rises would in effect be a cut, meaning Mayamo could afford even less.

 “The only option I have is to borrow money from loan sharks, but that leaves me with a whole lot of debt because the interest is very high at 40 per cent,” she told me.

People 18 to 59 require greater financial support too, given high unemployment rates. The retention in this year’s national budget of the Social Relief of Distress Grant, introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic, would continue supporting some people in that age group.

The potential successor to the Social Relief of Distress Grant, a basic income grant for everyone 18 to 59, would relieve some of the pressure on older people to use their Older Persons Grant to support other family members. Such a basic income grant has broad support from civil society, trade unions, and, this election year, from diverse political parties, including ActionSA, the African National Congress, the Democratic Alliance, EFF, and GOOD.

However, South Africa should not pay for a basic income grant by reducing spending on existing social grants, which are already too low for an adequate standard of living. Instead, South Africa should explore options such as additional progressive taxation and other non-regressive funding measures to raise the extra revenue.

Everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living. Unless the government increases the Older Persons Grant and the Child Support Grant in the upcoming budget to reflect rising prices and soon introduces an adequate basic income grant, it will be a long time before Mayamo and her grandchildren will enjoy that right, or afford a whole month of electricity and food.

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