South Africa responded to the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown using a combination of existing social protection programmes, unemployment insurance, and additional measures to support those most affected. This paper reviews policies and implementation with the objective of highlighting lessons for the global community, including on the use of digital mechanisms.
The government adopted a two-pronged and largely cash-based approach: unemployment benefits for formal sector workers and cash transfers to vulnerable individuals, informal workers, and beneficiaries of existing grants. Top-up payments for existing grants were rolled out efficiently; the new Special Relief of Distress (SRD) grant posed challenges but ultimately succeeded in reaching over six million previously uncovered beneficiaries. It may even become a permanent feature of South Africa’s social protection system.
Overall, the government reached over 30 million South Africans with cash-based relief measures. A distinctive feature of cash-based emergency relief was the use of digital technologies, especially in the application and verification process for the new SRD grant. The payment system, however, relied heavily on manual cash disbursements, thus failing to reflect the adoption of innovative digital technologies observed in many other African countries.
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