Converting grants introduced during the Covid-19 lockdown into permanent ones is not only about securing the bare conditions for life, the prospects for even a limited progressive state are at stake.
Remember October 2020. After almost a year in which each milestone has been grimmer than the last, this month will mark out, in unmistakable detail, whether or not the South African state has any progressive impulse or potential.
On Thursday 15 October, when outlining South Africa's economic recovery plan, President Cyril Ramaphosa took the admirable first step of extending the new social relief of distress grant by a further three months. After Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni delivers his medium-term budget strategy on 28 October, we will know if the government is to extend or end the other social grant increases that have stood as the sole bulwark between the country's most impoverished people and a humanitarian crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ramaphosa was quick to qualify the extension of the social relief of distress grant, saying the government could not afford anything beyond it. But the extension of the new grant must be a beginning, not an end.
And here, the "deep reservoir of resilience" to which the president appealed will do us little good. Instead, we must turn to a coalition of progressive forces taking up the grants as the defining economic struggle coming out of the lockdown. Already, the extension of the social grants has been a feature of the newfound solidarity between the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Federation of Trade Unions, while others have lobbied tirelessly for the same.
The gains the grants made
In April, less than a week after the government implemented its initial stringent lockdown, we reported that increasing social grants could save millions of lives. Just fewer than three million people were then pushed into poverty by the initial lockdown. But despite the failure to recover the jobs that were lost, the poverty rate decreased after the full new package of social grants kicked in. All evidence suggests that the social relief of distress grant made a significant contribution to ameliorating the worst effects of the crisis.
The protection that the new grant afforded previously unprotected people against harrowing new economic realities has forced Ramaphosa's hand.
There has long been a gap in South Africa's social security system: the working-age adult population. While there are grants for the elderly and children, working-age adults have been abandoned to a job market that has no place for them.
For the first time, a niche has been carved out for these people in South Africa's social security system. More than four million people who were not receiving grants in April were getting them in August.
But there is still work to be done. Exclusionary qualification criteria mean that beneficiaries are continuously being shut out of the new grant, and a disastrously slow start means it hasn't reached its target yet. The latest available data show that 6.5 million people who should be receiving R350 a month are not. This grant has also largely failed to reach shack dwellers.
The gender of a pandemic
Another key feature of the grant that Ramaphosa has extended is that it has benefitted men a great deal more than women. As recipients of child support grants, women often do not qualify for the new social relief of distress grant. This is where the crucial struggle for extending the R500 caregiver top-up to the child support grant comes in.
The shock to South Africa's labour market as a result of the lockdown ran side by side with an unprecedented domestic shock. Women bore the brunt of both. At the same time that school closures increased unpaid care work, typically done by women, the few sectors of the economy employing impoverished women - the informal sector, tourism, hospitality, domestic work - nearly vanished. Before the coronavirus hit South Africa, fewer than half of all jobs belonged to women, but women have accounted for more than 60% of job losses during the lockdown so far.
There is no reason to believe that a significant jobs recovery, or easing of the gendered burdens of the pandemic, is anywhere on the horizon. Bringing the top-up to the child support grant to an end will be short-termism of the deadliest kind, and there can be no mistaking the reasons behind Mboweni's decision, one way or the other. It will reflect priority, and not process. Proposals for the extension of the grants were handed to the National Treasury timeously and the evidence on which they were based mounts every day.
So, if Mboweni does not sign off on extending payment of the grants, it will be in the face of timely proposals and overwhelming evidence that they are necessary. That will mean a few things.
It will mean that the prevailing myth of meaningful job creation over the short and medium term remains intact. It will mean that the gust of orthodoxy from the treasury has again extinguished flickering progressive impulses in other departments. And more than all of this, it will mean that, while the South African government showed some success in protecting people against the effects of Covid-19, it is less interested in protecting the impoverished from the frightening new economy to which the pandemic is giving rise.
New boss, same as the old one
But extending these grant top-ups is about more than securing the bare conditions for life. Any prospects for a progressive South African state are at stake.
There will not be any immediate economic bounce-back from the Covid-19 lockdown. The pandemic will eviscerate what anaemic growth had kept South Africa's economy stuttering along since the turn of the millennium, and bosses will retain core, formal workers while approaching the new economic realities with caution. The workers they dumped during lockdown are not part of the initial recovery game plan.
And so, those who were losing before the pandemic will lose harder after it, while those who were winning will land on two feet. The only occupational class in which employment has not dropped during the lockdown is the professional class. Informal, unprotected, labour broker and domestic workers are starting to swell the ranks of jobseekers.
In among all of this, reconstructing the economy is no longer a radical idea. There is now a consensus, even among business and the government, that things need to change. And here is the danger.
The same economic forces that built the broken economy we took into the pandemic - an economy unable to provide a job for nearly four in every 10 people, and in which the poorest half of the population would still be in debt even if they sold everything they owned - stand poised to define the contours of the economy we take out of the pandemic.
It is on this terrain that the real potential of South Africa's new social grants regime becomes clear.
These have been six months in which we have been allowed to imagine, in the most nascent terms, new forms of economic organisation in which the state shoulders greater redistributive responsibilities. Bringing more than four million people under the protection of South Africa's social security net within a matter of months, and extending their protection for a further three months, is no small victory. And it is one that must be defended by sustained organising and demands for a state capable of and inclined to widening those redistributive dimensions. But, as a first step, the government must extend the grant top-ups.