Accessing social grants in South Africa: Participatory research for social change

By Professor Laurence Piper with Research Assistants Robyn Pasensie and Sondre Bailey, University of the Western Cape, Participedia Team

A team of Participedia researchers from the University of the Western Cape partnered with the advocacy organization Black Sash to investigate impacts on elderly and disabled citizens caused by changes to the way the South African Social Security Agency distributes social grants. Documented as a series of case studies on, this arts-based participatory research provides insights and evidence now used to advocate for systemic improvements for those who need it most.

Researchers and participants in the rural community of Genadendal, South Africa. Body Mapping was used as a method for sharing stories visually.

very month, 89 year old Nanna pays R70 South African Rands for a taxi to drive her 30km, from the small rural town of Genadendal to the regional town of Caledon, to claim her R1700 government pension. At Caledon she stands in a queue, sometimes for upwards of two hours with no chair, water or shelter. It was not always like this. In the past she could get her pension where she lived.

“It was very easy in Genadendal … here it was free. … There were stalls, you can buy your clothes, your shoes, even groceries you can get there. But now I must do everything in Caledon. The new system is not good.”

Nanna’s story is not uncommon. Until late 2018, the 10.9-million social grant beneficiaries in South Africa had a fairly simple way of collecting grant money. They were given a SASSA card which could be used at dedicated pay points provided by Cash Paymaster Services (CPS). However, the service was far from perfect; Of primary concern was the exploitation of social grant beneficiaries. In response, Black Sash lobbied against automatic deductions from social grants to loan companies to pay off personal debts. Many of these personal loans were unethically and illegally set up in the first place, including by the company running the grant disbursement, CPS. Eventually the courts forced a stop to these deductions, and CPS’s contract was not renewed.

Citizens face long wait times in Robertson, where researchers accompanied participants to claim their grants. People are turned away when cash runs out.

As a consequence of CPS’ payment system being phased out, grant recipients no longer have pay points designated only for them. Today they must join existing queues at either the South African Post Office, food retailers, and ATMs that serve as the new pay points for grant beneficiaries. This has had the unintended consequence of impacting beneficiaries with much longer wait times, security issues, and increased travel costs. Too often, this results in social grant beneficiaries being turned away empty-handed because no money is available, and then constrained access to recourse when there is a problem with payment.

The primary problem at the heart of the new grant payment system is that it is no longer designed around the needs of grant recipients — especially the elderly.

Participedia researchers worked with Black Sash to identify four case study sites across the Western Cape. A participatory research program was designed to investigate the effect of the new payment system on elderly and disabled grant beneficiaries.

The research engaged 45 participants across the four sites, with the average age of the respondents being 66. In addition to interviews, observation, and focus groups, artistic research methods were used. For example, Body Mapping is an artistic participatory research method used to understand and explain the emotional effect of experiences, and how these emotions become physically manifest on the body of the person. River of Life is another arts-based method, where participants use the visual metaphor of a river to illustrate a journey, including moments of ease and difficulty.

(Left) A participant in Robertson describes her Body Map, where physical manifestations of emotions illuminate challenges related to the experience of accessing social grants. (Right) Participants in Delft display River of Life results, sharing key elements of their journeys from home to new SASSA pay points.

The use of arts-based participatory methods in the fieldwork were critical to the success of the research project by offering a vulnerable group of respondents with limited education a non-threatening and non-verbal way of working through some complicated and emotional issues. It also helped respondents bond with one another through the process of the workshop, and greatly facilitated meaningful discussion on experiences of grant day that turned out to be collective rather than individual. was used to document this multifaceted research, with the overarching program outlined in the case entry, “Participatory Research on the Decommissioning of South African Social Services.” Findings were then published as case studies for each of the four engagement sites: Khayelitsha and Delft (urban communities), and Genadendal and Robertson (rural communities).

The elderly citizens who participated in the research program have now been brought into contact with civil society organisations that can better advise them of their rights and the processes around grant collection. Moreover, the project has informed the research and advocacy of Black Sash around the profound difficulties that beneficiaries now face when claiming their social grants. Black Sash has gone on to do similar research in another 16 communities around the country. This work has begun to engage the South African public through the media, and contributes to an evidence base that Black Sash can reference when advocating for positive change.

Key Participedia Links: is a wiki platform that anyone can join to collaboratively publish and edit entries about participatory initiatives.

Parent Case (overarching research program): Participatory Research on the Decommissioning of South African Social Services

Component Cases (findings from the four community sites): Khayelitsha, Robertson, Delft, Genadendal

Methods: Body Mapping, River of Life

Organisations: Black Sash, University of the Western Cape



A global community sharing knowledge and stories about public participation and democratic innovations — Join us at!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store

A global community sharing knowledge and stories about public participation and democratic innovations — Join us at!