THE Black Sash human rights organisation has voiced its disappointment that the Department of Social Development has failed to clear the massive backlog of social assistance appeal cases by 30 September 2011 - as stipulated in a court settlement order. The Black Sash, supported by the Legal Resources Centre, accepted the settlement offer after taking the government to court on behalf of nearly 65 000 people who were waiting to have their social grant appeals heard. Some had waited more than 18 months. Along with 24 disabled people from the Eastern Cape, they launched their legal application in March last year following persistent attempts to persuade the department to deal with the excessive delays in the appeals system.
Black Sash Advocacy Programme Manager, Ratula Beukman, said although they have reluctantly agreed to give the government an extension of two months until the end of November, they are concerned about the department's ability to deliver on its commitment "The tragedy is that most appeals are submitted by vulnerable and marginalised people, many of whom are disabled or chronically ill and can't easily access the legal help they need to enforce their right to administrative justice," she said. "Taking the government to court was not something we did lightly but unfortunately litigation was the only route left open to us to secure the constitutional and statutory rights of tens of thousands of vulnerable people to an appeal," Beukman explained.
Black Sash KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Director, Evashnee Naidu, said she is particularly concerned about the breakdown in communication with the department in her province. "Our clients and other applicants are still experiencing unacceptable delays in the processing of their appeals, despite the department's promises to set up an efficient and effective system." She further said that problems included delays in receiving a hearing date, delays in being informed of the outcome of hearings, delays in payments as well as poor communication in general with the applicants. Many of the appeals related to grant applicants who are chronically ill, but may not qualify for a Disability Grant. Beukman said this has exposed a massive hole in the social assistance net. She pointed to South Africa's widespread poverty and extremely high levels of chronic illness due to the HIV/Aids pandemic and TB, and said that the current system basically forces people who are chronically ill to become disabled before they are able to secure any form of income support.
"Helping sick people who are battling the dual hardships of poverty and illness to participate meaningfully in society is not just our Constitutional duty, it also makes social and economic sense," Beukman said. "Allowing people to become functionally disabled and unproductive costs us all more and also puts an added strain on our already over-burdened public health system," she insisted. The Black Sash has given the Social Development Department until 30 November 2011 to clear the current appeals backlog and until 31 December 2011 to provide a final report confirming that this has been done in accordance with the terms of the settlement order.