Hundreds are using the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) online booking portal for disability grant medical assessments.
The service is being piloted in the Western Cape which had the highest number of backlogged medical assessments for the grant earlier this year.
The Black Sash has raised concern that the portal won't have a significant impact on long queues outside SASSA offices and will do very little for people without access to a smart phone or the internet.
Hundreds of people have used SASSA's newly launched online booking system to get medical assessments to see if they qualify for a disability grant. It is, however, still too early to tell whether beneficiaries in desperate need of the service currently have access to laptops, smartphones, or even the internet to make bookings, according to advocacy group, the Black Sash.
The temporary disability grant process has been plagued by a number of challenges over the past few months, with the Western Cape recording the highest number of backlogged temporary disability grant assessments earlier this year.
SASSA offices in the Western Cape saw a massive influx of beneficiaries rushing to renew their disability grant applications in January 2021, when the grants lapsed after being extended due to Covid-19 in 2020. This delay left a backlog of over 40,000 beneficiaries. This resulted in long queues outside SASSA offices, with some beneficiaries sleeping outside overnight to guarantee getting help the next day.
In response, SASSA began piloting online bookings for medical assessments in the Western Cape at the end of April.
Provincial spokesperson Shivani Wahab said more than 400 people had booked their medical appointments within the first seven days of its launch. An average of 57 bookings are done per day.
In order to qualify for the temporary disability grant, the application process consists of about three visits to a SASSA office, according to Wahab. She said that the online booking system will reduce queues and waiting periods at SASSA offices.
But Black Sash's paralegal field worker Abigail Peters remains sceptical. "People who have appointments often wait in a long slow-moving queue for hours and as a result are unable to get inside the SASSA office before it closes, to honour these appointments," said Peters.
She said that some applicants show up at the offices for help with grant issues without booked appointments. This means that they end up competing with those who already have appointments.
"In the midst of this chaos, people in wheelchairs or crutches are not always attended to first and people often huddle together while waiting for the queues to inch forward," said Peters.
"Given the digital divide, many marginalised people don't always have access to information communication technology like a laptop, smartphone and data or airtime to use the online platform."
In response to a recent parliamentary question on 4 June, Minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu wrote that the online booking system is not meant to replace face-to-face services offered at SASSA offices. She assured that "those who do not have access to devices to make online bookings still have the option to report to their SASSA local office," she said.