Decommissioning South African Social Services: Participatory Field Research in Robertson

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General Issues
Social Welfare
Human Rights & Civil Rights
Specific Topics
Pensions & Retirement
Low-income Assistance
Western Cape
South Africa
Scope of Influence
Metropolitan Area
Parent of this Case
Participatory Research on the Decommissioning of South African Social Services
Start Date
End Date
Time Limited or Repeated?
A single, defined period of time
Develop the civic capacities of individuals, communities, and/or civil society organizations
Social mobilization

A case study of the Robertson rural community as part of a participatory research initiative on the decommissioning of the South African Social Services (SASSA) social grant pay points.

Problems and Purpose

This is a component case of a collaborative research project between University of the Western Cape and Black Sash. Overall the research explores the effect of the decommissioning of the old SASSA (South African Social Services Agency) pay points and it’s former payment structure. It has now been replaced by a payment infrastructure provided for by the South African Post Office (SAPO). Additionally grant recipients may also receive their money at commercial banks and selected retailers. This has resulted in a greater number of recipients accessing their grants through Automated Teller Machines (ATMs). This component of the research project is a case study of these changes in grant access focusing on recipients in the Robertson rural community.

Background History and Context

Robertson is a rural farm community that is situated in the Cape Winelands region. The town centre is mostly comprised of commercial business, restaurants and holiday accomodations. The surrounding areas of Robertson are populated by various lower income, township and informal settlement housing. These areas are known to be poor and in recent times have become more unsafe. Robertson has mix of both coloured and black African people with a sizeable portion of foreign residents as well. Robertson was selected as a case study because it is has a poor settlement and a large number of grant recipients. As a rural area it also provides a different context and environment for the accessing of grants and the effect of the decommissioning process.

Robertson was formed as a result of a resolution by the Dutch Reformed Church in Swellendam to create a new congregation for the residents of the southern region of the Cape. The church purchased land in the area and named it after Dr William Robertson, the first Dutch Reformed Church minister in Clanwilliam. Robertson over its very long history has now become synonymous with the wine industry in the Western Cape. Wine farms, wine trade and wine tourism to the region are a mainstay for its local economy. While the town has mushroomed in size over the years its development has nonetheless been concentrated on the town centre and in its wine industry. The growing population size of residents in Roberston has led to the establishment of poor settlements and townships such as Nkqubela. The research took place in the Nkqubela township which is a predominantly black African township.

Robertson, part of the Langberg Municipality, depends on the agro-processing and wine industry. As a result the jobs on offer within Robertson and the rest of the Langberg Municipality are working on farms. The nature of farm work is laborious and farm workers at their end of their tenure usually leave the towns they have worked on and settle in the township areas (Ground up). Nkqubela is one such township which houses many former and current farm workers and also has a growing number of migrants.

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

The entire research project is organised and funded through a collaborative project between Black Sash, University of the Western Cape (UWC) and Participedia. The component case research in Robertson is specifically funded and organised through UWC and Black Sash.

To support these entities, local community based organisations (CBO) working with Black Sash are used to help source participants for the research. As a civil society organisation Black Sash partners with CBOs to facilitate it’s goal of community engagement with government. Through Black Sash researchers are able to connect with relevant CBOs in the four chosen case studies. In Robertson the CBO is Sunshine Daycare in the Nkqubela township of Robertson. Sunshine Daycare is an educentre and daycare for young children in the Nkqubela township. It also provides outreach work to the elderly of Nkqubela.

For more information on the organizers of the full research project on SASSA’s decommissioning, see the parent case entry.

Participant Recruitment and Selection

For the overall research project the four component cases were selected to reflect both urban and rural settings. The Robertson component case is an example of a rural setting. The researchers’ assumption is that decommissioning will affect rural and urban recipients differently, with urban areas less affected in terms of distance and time to travel than in rural areas .

Robertson was selected as it has a large mostly poor settlement outside the town centre with a sizable number of, and almost even mix, of coloured and black African residents as well as foreign residents. Robertson is known to be part of the Cape Winelands area and the town centre is reasonably built up however the settlements surrounding the town are known to be poor. The surrounding towns of Bonnievale, McGregor, Montagu and Ashton are significantly smaller than Robertson. Robertson serves as the largest town in this area.

The participants for the research in Robertson were recruited through the Black Sash advice office operating in Robertson in partnership with its community partner Sunshine Daycare. Through the assistance of Sunshine Daycare ten participants were sourced for the three day research process. The provision of food and travel costs for the participants are provided for by the CBO who receives a stipend from Black Sash. Participants were all elderly person who received old age grants. Old age grants are the second largest grant type to be paid out and comes second to child support grants.

Methods and Tools Used

The design of this project draws upon exploratory qualitative previously undertaken by Black Sash. The research is qualitative overall, although various kinds of data - quantitative and qualitative, numerical, written, oral and visual - will be collected. In Robertson, as in all sites, the following participatory research methods, tools and techniques were used:

a.) Focus groups: A discussion held between no more than ten participants led by a facilitator/researcher.

b.) Interviews: Individually administered series of questions to participants.

c.) Observation: Annotating of participants and their environment by researchers.

d.) River of Life: Participatory research tool that gets participants to draw their experiences as a river.

e.) Body mapping: Participatory research tool that gets participants to explain the effects of an experience on their body and in relation to it

What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation

The research engaged with five key variables tested through a variety of research tool. These five variables are: time, finance, dignity, opportunity cost and distance. The individual participant interviews, focus groups and observation schedule were used to collect factual and perceptual data on the grant experience. Together with this researchers also administered to participants two participatory research tasks. The first of these was the River of Life. The River of life enabled participants to subjectively reflect on the grant experience using a visual narrative method. This method involved getting participants to reflect on their grant experience by representing it as a river. Each obstacle, challenge or highlight of the journey was annotated on the river and then presented back to the group.

In conjunction with the River of Life participants also engaged in a body mapping exercise.  Body mapping is a narrative method that is used to gain an understanding of oneself and our bodies in relation to the world we live in. This method was used to hone in on the dignity variable to allow participants to create narratives of the effect of the decommissioning process on themselves. Participants drew an outline of their bodies (drawn to scale) and painted/decorated their body maps to express emotional responses to the decommissioning process and to present associated issues of the decommissioning. The body maps were also used to show the physical effect on the body such as stress and excitement that the day of grant receiving brings.

The research is designed in two phases: i.) fieldwork and ii) products. The fieldwork phase comprises of three, non-consecutive, days of data gathering. During the fieldwork phase of Robertson researchers were engaged in the following:

i.) Fieldwork Phase

  • Day 1-workshop: Thursday 28 February, involved the researchers meeting with the grant recipients, as organised by the partner organisation of Black Sash, Sunshine Daycare centre. The day involved explaining the project, securing ethical clearance and conducting ‘rivers of life,’ a participatory activity designed to learn about grant collection day experiences.
  • Day 2-grant recipient travel: Friday 1 March, involved researchers travelling with selected participants to collect their money, and interviewing, observing and photographing the process of the day.
  • Day 3-workshop: Friday 8 March, was a debrief for the Robertson community which presented to them the interim findings.

The products phase of the research will be completed once all four case study sites have been conducted. This phase is to be completed between April to May 2019 and will include:

  • Ongoing findings from each research site published on the Participedia website.
  • The production of a project report by the end of May
  • The production of one or more documentary videos of the research process, published on the Participedia website

On Thursday 28th February, researchers from the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) conducted a workshop and interviews with 7 recipients of social grants in Robertson, Western Cape. The focus of the workshop on 28 February was on recipients experience of the change in the allocation of social grants from the SASSA pay point system to the new system.

These recipients were all residents of Robertson township Nkqubela, and their presence at the workshop was facilitated by the Black Sash through its partnership with Sunshine Daycare centre. Following the workshop researchers conducted a follow along with participants as they went about collecting their grants. This took place on Friday 1 March. This process involved participant interviews and observation.

The day 1 workshop was comprised of 7 participants of whom 5 were black African and 2 were coloured, roughly the demographics of Nkqubela, Robertson. Most of the participants were female, with only 1 male. The average age of the group was 71.

Results per variable:

  1. Finances

A significant difference is evident in the increased cost of accessing social grants. As the graph below demonstrates, the cost of accessing grants has increased for all participants, with participants RO2 and RO7 recorded having spent the most on accessing their social grants.

The change in cost in accessing grants now is mostly due to costs associated for travel and ATM fees, which for most are also new financial obligations. The previous paypoint in Nkqubela was situated in the community and required no additional transport costs. Participants were able to access their grants via biometric fingerprint scanning and paid fees for accessing their grants. General confusion exists as the actual costs of ATM fees (for withdrawals) and banking costs for account holders.

2. Travel Time

All (6) but 1 of the participants recorded spending more time traveling to get their grant now, than previously. Recipient RO2 says that they spend less time travelling to get their grant whereas recipient RO6 has recorded more time travelling to get their grant than previously.


The paysites for grants are situated in Robertson town centre which is approximately 3.7 km from Nkqubela where the participants reside. The former paysite was a local town hall in Nkqubela which was a short distance for most participants. Given the greater distance participants now have to walk further which has increased travel time. For those participants taking a taxi an overall increase in time travelled was observed but substantially less so than those who walk.

3. Distance

In respect of the impact of decommissioning on the distance travelled to access these grants, the research revealed that all recipients have reported an increase in distance travelled. An average increase of 3.6 km was reported. This is because all recipients now have to travel to town to access their grants, in comparison to previously when the pay point was in Nkqubela. All recipients have reported that they now either have to walk longer distances or have to pay to take a taxi to get to town where the closest ATM’s, retail stores and other means of accessing their grants are.  

Opportunity cost

The focus on opportunity costs for grant recipients is to assess the loss of income or other activities that the grant recipient may forgo in order to collect his/her grant. Additionally participants were also probed on the availability of cheaper goods on sale and chances for entrepreneurship that were present at the former paysite (prior to decommissioning) and whether these opportunities exist now (post decommissioning). All participants but one noted that there was a greater likelihood of accessing cheaper goods at the former paysite in Nkqubela because there were always stalls outside the paypoint offering grocery, clothing and homeware items for sale.

A participant stated that:

‘There are no opportunities for cheaper purchases you lose a lot of time because you leave early and return late so you can’t cook. On pay day I have this new style now of buying takeaways. That’s the only day one can afford takeaways’

Most participants were pensioners and therefore did not report the loss of a work day or loss of income when collecting their grants. However participants noted that most of them were grandparents or caregivers and they could not look after their grandchildren or family members when they had to travel to Robertson town centre to collect their grants.

A participant stated that:

‘I cannot look after my children or make food for them. I spend the whole day in town. The lines are shorter two or three days after payday but I can’t wait that long I must buy food for the children’.

The loss of a feeling of community was also reported with some noting that going to the paysite in Nkqubela was also an opportunity to meet and catch up with friends and the atmosphere was generally a happy and jovial one. This was also noted in relation to the welcoming attitude of stall holders who knew their customers and invited conversation whereas retail workers in town, where participants now shop, are found to be less friendly and selling wares that are more expensive.

Ek het mense daar ontmoet en dit was lekker. Nou moet ek by die winkel gaan kos koop en dis baie duur. Ek gaan nou dorp toe ek kom weer terug op my eie’

(I met people there and it was nice now I have to buy food and stuff at the shop and it’s very expensive. Now I go to town and come back on my own)


In respect of this variable participants were probed for changes surrounding dignified treatment by officials/retail workers, conditions under which they received their grant, access to adequate ablution facilities, safety, access to recourse and general sentiment surrounding the participants feelings of the grant collection process.

The participants noted that the previous paysite in Nkqubela was much closer and they did not feel uneasy about having to walk long distances. Most participants noted with concern the rise in crime in the area with one participants stating that:

Die parra parra is loskop. Hulle is ooral. Dra net jou stokkie by jou want as hulle jou geld vat, dan is jy die res van die maand honger’

(The thieves are everywhere. Make sure you have your stick with you because if they take your money then you will go hungry for the rest of the month)

The previous paysite in Nkqubela provided grant recipients with chairs, water, first aid (if needed) and access to clean toilets. Elderly persons and the disabled were also served first. Most were happy with the service they received and noted that the staff were friendly and helpful. If there was a problem or a grant beneficiary had a query there was a SASSA (South African Social Service Agency) representative present to whom they could direct their queries. The decommissioning of dedicated paysites such as the one formerly operating in Nkqubela have now given way to a multivariate payment system. This means that beneficiaries can collect the grant money at the Post Office, selected retailers and ATM (via their private bank account or with a SASSA card). There are no provisions for the elderly or disabled, no chairs or ablution facilities available at the new paysites. Lines at the ATM’s and retailers like Shoprite and Pick n Pay are exceptionally long with an average wait time of 2 hours. Beneficiaries are made to stand in line with no queue management or security. Participants noted that one cannot leave the queue to find a toilet, to rest or go elsewhere because then they are not allowed back into the line (by other beneficiaries). They are instead forced to go to the back of the queue. Participants stated that:

I collapsed one year at Pick n Pay because of my high blood pressure. I was lucky that I knew a lady in line that drew my money for me’

‘There are long lines at the ATM. A long time is spent waiting for the taxi to fill up. My daughter has to go out and collect my money for me because I cannot go out on my own because of my health condition.’

‘Ek voel so hulpeloos, nou vat my dogter meeste van my saake behanding’

(I feel so helpless, now my daughter takes care of most of my business)

‘I would feel better if there was security like nobody could attack you’

‘My grandchild has to collect my money now because town is too far for me to walk and the lines there are too long’

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

The research team of Prof Laurence Piper and research assistants Sondre Bailey and Robyn Pasensie have been in regular contact with Participedia via Jesi Carson and Scott Fletcher to develop the parent case and this case, to get both ready for publication on the Participedia website. This marks a novel use of cases on the platform by documenting cases in advance of and during their implementation. This research is piloting a new way of cataloguing and presenting information for Participedia.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

To be added at the conclusion of the research in all four case sites.

See Also


South African History Online (2018). “Robertson”.

Moussa, Z, 2009 Tips for Trainers. Rivers of Life, PLA [formerly PLA Notes] 60 (Community based adaptation to climate change). IIED, London.

Botha, S 2017 ‘Using metaphoric body-mapping to encourage reflection on the developing identity of pre-service teachers’ S. Afr. j. educ. [online]. 2017, vol.37, n.3 [cited  2019-02-11], pp.1-12.

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