OPINION: Sassa's new app gives people with disabilities the freedom they deserve

OPINION

Freedom Day earlier this year heralded a new kind of freedom in South Africa for some of our country’s most marginalised – the freedom of empowerment for people with disabilities.

The South African Social Security Agency's (Sassa) launch of the online disability grant booking system, by the Department of Social Development in collaboration with GovChat, took place on 29 April 2021, when the pilot in Bellville, Western Cape, went live.

Department of Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu continuously said to us in the development of this functionality of the Sassa app, as she has said with the previous ones, “the system must respond to the lived experience of persons with disabilities”. That “lived experience” is our true north of what we sought to understand and interpret when developing this functionality.

Within just two weeks of the pilot, there were 300+ registrations, and this was an extremely encouraging number when you think of the small size of that community, and it's even smaller percentage of disabled people on the Sassa grant, as well as the short time it was available. We were extremely invigorated at the uptake statistics. Just think: it’s 300 disabled people, who will never have to wait in impossibly long queues from 3am, especially in this year’s harsh winter, ever again.

Since the pilot, rollout nationally has been under way. The Northern Cape, Western Cape, and Eastern Cape went live on 24 May 2021, less than a month after the pilot. KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State, and Mpumalanga were up next just a week later on 31 May 2021, and Gauteng, Limpopo and the North West went live on 7 June 2021.

The ability to put that kind of meaning into the lived experience of people with disabilities is what keeps us motivated and inspired to do what we do best - digitisation. Technology is an enabler for progress and evolution in all forms and at all levels of society. The world’s most vulnerable are impacted the most, unfortunately, when we optimise technology to its full potential towards meaningful digitisation. Technology can either be a multiplier of inequality or a magnifier of these lived experiences.

Lockdowns around the world forced the reliance on technology not seen by humankind before. Sassa, through the department, had to find contactless solutions without compromising any progress made pre-COVID, no matter how small. More than that, though, we had to adapt all services very quickly so that there would be no additional distress on the country’s already poor and vulnerable.

The pivot effect that catalysed the whole world into creating solutions, interventions, and designing for continuity of remote work and productivity, through technology did not miss Sassa. The agency to find ways and means to ensure that those “in our care”, as Sassa CEO Busisiwe Memela likes to say, were not made even more vulnerable if they could not collect or engage physically for their Sassa grants.

This situation presented a challenge that is not unique, however the time pressure meant that we had to find innovative ways to respond to the challenge.

The digitisation of the social relief of distress grant, was our beacon of success up until that point. The ability to resolve and innovate the disability grant allowed us to expand our thinking, re-engineer our strategic intent and design elements for functionality in technology that in some cases are world firsts.

Taking a leaf out of our President’s book, I have a vision of GovChat making a contribution to building a "capable state". In that light, I wanted us to create something that makes democracy tangible, a fundamental citizen response mechanism that is transparent and real when there are no elections or electioneering - just government and the people, where service delivery and citizenship value take centre stage, with transparent and open processes that focus on being able to hold government accountable.

I realise it may sound idealistic, but I wonder how many would be surprised that government actually does quite a bit when it comes to delivery. There's a gap, though, in the accountability of that delivery, and this is the premise of GovChat's purpose. The Sassa pilot is a case in point.

As GovChat, we are involved in daily conversations about improving, enhancing, and digitsing processes for the benefit of South Africans. Accountability - through technology - is our reason for existence.

One of the considerations technologists have when dealing with this era of industrial revolution (humanity is being faced with either the fourth, fifth or evens sixth industrial revolution, depending on where in the world you are), is that people across the public and private sectors around the world feel digitisation will translate into them losing their jobs, and could cause intentional delays to resist the digitisation progress.

It is something not always spoken about openly in most organisations, but for us in the technology world, we are faced with it often and therefore we can identify it very quickly. Pre-COVID all the talk about the fourth industrial revolution being on the horizon, pointed to job creation, upskilling, and reskilling for the future world. That future world, is now HERE. So, we are now in the throes of digital transformation, which means that transitioning will never be easy, but it has to be done. It’s about focusing on the recipients of our service and our purpose. That is when reskilling, upskilling, and job creation - not job losses - will happen.

South Africa was listed as the most unequal country in the world in 2019 by the World Bank before COVID rendered that inequality even worse, if that is statistically possible. Technology, in the context of this inequality, has created a curious case of equality-inequality perceptions, by raising the value of experience equality, and decreasing the value of financial and economic equality.

The premise of technology is that it makes its creators rich, but all its users are the same. Facebook’s creator Mark Zuckerberg may have many more millions of dollars in his bank account than most humans on the planet, however just like all of us, his Facebook page will work the same as the rest of ours. Access to technology is definitely unequal, but as it gets cheaper and quicker over time, it won’t matter how rich you are, you’ll end up with the same experience. Experience equality, then, comes down to what you do with it to close the gaps of other inequalities.

We should not miss the opportunity to take our lives, jobs, and careers to a whole new level, because we are so focused on keeping what we know, alive. We seem to be living the definition of the adage: “If we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backwards”.

Eldrid Jordaan is the founder and chief executive officer of GovChat.Org, the official citizen engagement platform for the South African government. He is a former Ministerial Special Advisor and served as a advisory board member at Mxit and currently serves as digital communications adviser to various African governments and is a United States of America Department of State IVLP alumni.

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