Locked In! How the South African Welfare State Came to Rely on a Digital Monopolist

The South African Social Security Agency provides “social grants” to 18 million citizens. In using a single private company with its own biometric payment system to deliver grants, the state became dependent on a monopolist and exposed recipients to debt and financial exploitation.

On February 24, 2021, the Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project hosted the fifth event in their “Transformer States” conversation series, which focuses on the human rights implications of the emerging digital state. In this conversation, Christiaan Van Veen and Victoria Adelmant explored the impacts of outsourcing at the heart of South Africa’s social security system with Lynette Maart, the National Director of the South African human rights organization The Black Sash. This blog summarizes the conversation and provides the event recording and additional readings below.

Delivering the right to social security

Section 27(1)(c) of the 1996 South African Constitution guarantees everyone the “right to have access” to social security. In the early years of the post-Apartheid era, the country’s nine provincial governments administered social security grants to fulfill this constitutional social right. In 2005, the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) was established to consolidate these programs. The social grant system has expanded significantly since then, with about 18 million of South Africa’s roughly 60 million citizens receiving grants. The system’s growth and coverage has been a source of national pride. In 2017, the Constitutional Court remarked that the “establishment of an inclusive and effective program of social assistance” is “one of the signature achievements” of South Africa’s constitutional democracy.

Addressing logistical challenges through outsourcing

Despite SASSA’s progress in expanding the right to social security, its grant programs remain constrained by the country’s physical, digital, and financial infrastructure. Millions of impoverished South Africans live in rural areas lacking proper access to roads, telecommunications, internet connectivity, or banking, which makes the delivery of cash transfers difficult and expensive. Instead of investing in its own cash transfer delivery capabilities, SASSA awarded an exclusive contract in 2012 to Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), a subsidiary of South African technology company to administer all of SASSA’s cash transfers nationwide. This made CPS a welfare delivery monopolist overnight.

SASSA selected CPS in large part because its payment system, which included a smart card with an embedded fingerprint-based chip, could reach the poorest and most remote parts of the country. To obtain a banking license, CPS partnered with Grindrod Bank and opened 10 million new bank accounts for SASSA recipients. Cash transfers could be made via the CPS payment system to smart cards without the need for internet or electricity. CPS rolled out a network of 10,000 places where social grant payments could be withdrawn, known as “paypoints,” nationwide. Recipients were never further than 5km from a paypoint.

Thanks to its position as sole deliverer of SASSA grants and its autonomous payment system, CPS also had unique access to the financial data of millions of the poorest South Africans. Other Net1 subsidiaries including Moneyline (a lending group), Smartlife (a life insurance provider) and Manje Mobile (a mobile money service) were able to exploit this “customer base” to cross-sell services. Net1 subsidiaries were soon marketing loans, insurance, and airtime to SASSA recipients. These “customers” were particularly attractive because fees could be automatically deducted from the SASSA grants the very moment they were paid on CPS’ infrastructure. Recipients became a lucrative, practically risk-free market for lenders and other service providers due to these immediate automatic deductions from government transfers. The Black Sash has found that women were going to paypoints at 4.30am in their pajamas to try to withdraw their grants before deductions left them with hardly any of the grant left.

Through its “Hands off Our Grants” advocacy campaign, the Black Sash showed that these deductions were often unauthorized and unlawful. Lynette told the story of Ma Grace, an elderly pensioner who was sold airtime even though she did not own a mobile phone, and whose avenues to recourse were all but blocked off. She explained that telephone helplines were not free but required airtime (which poor people often did not have), and that they “deflected calls” and exploited language barriers to ensure customers “never really got an answer in the language of their choice.”

“Lockin” and the hollowing out of state capacity

Net1’s exploitation of SASSA beneficiaries is only part of the story. This is also about multidimensional governmental failure stemming from SASSA’s outright dependence on CPS. As academic Keith Breckenridge has written, the Net1/SASSA relationship involves “vendor lockin,” a situation in which “the state must confront large, perhaps unsustainable, switching costs to break free of its dependence on the company for grant delivery and data processing.” There are at least three key dimensions of this lockin dynamic which were explored in the conversation:

  • SASSA outsourced both cash transfer delivery and program oversight to CPS. CPS’s “foot soldiers” wore several hats: the same person might deliver grant payments at paypoints, field complaints as local SASSA representatives, and sell loans or airtime. Commercial activity and benefits delivery were conflated.
  • The program’s structure resulted in acute regulatory failures. Because CPS (not Grindrod Bank) ultimately delivered SASSA funds to recipients via its payment infrastructure outside the National Payment System, the payments were exempt from normal oversight by banking regulators. Accordingly, the regulators were blind to unauthorized deductions by Net1 subsidiaries from recipients’ payments.
  • SASSA was entirely reliant on CPS and unable to reach its own beneficiaries itself. Though the Constitutional Court declared SASSA’s 2012 contract with CPS unconstitutional due to irregularities in the procurement process, it ruled that the contract should continue as SASSA could not yet deliver the grants without CPS. In 2017, Net1 co-founder and former CEO Serge Belamant boasted that SASSA would “need to use pigeons” to deliver social grants without CPS. While this was an exaggeration, when SASSA finally transitioned to a partnership with the South African Post Office in 2018, it had to reduce the number of paypoints from 10,000 to 1,740. As Lynette observed, SASSA now has a weaker footprint in rural areas. Therefore, rural recipients “bear the costs of transport and banking fees in order to withdraw their own money.”

This story of SASSA, CPS, and social security grants in South Africa shows not only how outsourced digital delivery of welfare can lead to corporate exploitation and stymied access to social rights, but also how reliance on private technologies can induce “lockin” that undermines the state’s ability to perform basic and vital functions. As the Constitutional Court stated in 2017, the exclusive contract between SASSA and CPS led to a situation in which “the executive arm of government admits that it is not able to fulfill its constitutional and statutory obligations to provide for the social assistance of its people.”

March 11, 2021. Adam Ray, JD program, NYU School of Law; Human Rights Scholar with the Digital Welfare State & Human Rights Project in 2020. He holds a Masters degree from Yale University and previously worked as the CFO of Songkick.