Bold promises, constrained capacity, stumbling delivery:the expansion of social protection in response to the Covid-19 lockdown in South Africa

Working paper number:456
Author: Jeremy Seekings
Unit: CSSR


The South African government was quick to impose a lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The lockdown deprived millions of South Africans of their livelihoods, rapidly deepening the country’s existing crises of unemployment, poverty and hunger. The government quickly announced temporary reforms of unemployment insurance – assisting businesses and workers in formal employment – but was slow to announce palliative measures to assist the poor or people whose informal livelihoods had collapsed under lockdown. After a delay, the government also announced bold (albeit temporary) reforms of social assistance, through both raising benefits for existing social grants and extending coverage through a new emergency social grant (albeit with modest benefits). Together, these promised to extend financial support from one-third of the population to more than one half, and perhaps even two-thirds, of the population. The government appeared to be providing for almost all households except for the rich, i.e. unprecedented and quasi-universal protection. Problems of state capacity, however, severely delayed the implementation of the new set of programmes. Actual benefits fell far short of what was promised, apparently because of the lack of capacity, and perhaps also lack of leadership, within the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) and national Department of Social Development.

Publication file:seekings.pdf