To alleviate the suffering created by a nationwide lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African government implemented the COVID-19 Social Relief Distress Grant which provided unemployed citizens and refugees with valid permits with a monthly amount of R350 per month for a six-month period. This grant was intended to benefit unemployed individuals who did not qualify for any other government benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic and thus could not support themselves in any other way.
The problem was that the application criteria for the grant excluded asylum seekers and special permit holders, which can be described as one of the most vulnerable members of society in South Africa. Many individuals in these groups live below the poverty line and do not have excess savings to see them through a period without work. Many asylum seekers hold temporary jobs in the informal sector or are self-employed and so could not work during the lockdown and did not qualify for other government assistance. Further, many NGOs limit the scope of their assistance to qualified refugees so asylum seekers could not benefit from their assistance either.
It is on this basis that Norton Rose Fulbright, under its Public Interest team with the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, brought a challenge to the laws that excluded asylum seekers and special permit holders from applying for the COVID-19 Social Relief Distress Grant on the basis that the exclusion offends the principles of equality and human dignity. The legal team successfully managed to obtain an order declaring the regulations published by the Minister of Social Development outlining who could apply as unconstitutional and invalid to the extent that they excluded asylum seekers and those on special permits from Zimbabwe, Angola and Lesotho from receiving the COVID-19 social relief of distress grant.
The matter was heard on an urgent basis in order to ensure that asylum seekers and special permit holders could receive the much needed financial assistance as soon as possible.
R350 may not sound like a lot of money to some but for those who have no means to provide for their families, it is lifesaving. The order also applied retrospectively therefore asylum seeker and special permit holders could claim for the previous months they were excluded.
Our legal team comprised of two counsel, three attorneys, and four candidate attorneys. The attorneys alone worked 110.9 hours on the matter and incurred approximately R250 000 in legal fees, If one were to include counsel’s hours and fees, this number would probably double.
This success story would not have been possible without collaboration with other public interest organisations including Lawyers for Human Rights. LHR provided us with confirmatory affidavits detailing the high number of urgent requests from asylum seekers and special permits for financial assistance, demonstrating the need for the extension of the grant.
This case is an example of how the law can be used as a tool to bring socio-economic relief to those who need it most, and shows the power of lawyers being willing to work in collaboration and on a pro bono basis.