Death benefits in the South African social security system: The good, the bad and the ugly

Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic (Designate) and former Executive Dean: Faculty of Law, University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article published in The Daily Maverick, 08 July 2021.

About 4.8 million South Africans have unclaimed pension benefits to the value of R42-billion. This points to the untenable situation of orphans and widows or widowers starving while the benefits are accumulating interest in a fund or scheme.

In Ke dumetse ho Morena, one of the hit songs in a collection of Tswana and Sotho hymns titled Difela tsa Sione, we are reminded of the eerie catchphrase “lefu la hae lea mphedisa”. Loosely translated, it means “His death sustains me”. Another meaning that can be attached to the aforementioned words, which resonates with many bible verses, is that He (Jesus) died so we may live.

The closest direct verse, which is the common one that summarises the whole gospel, can be found in John 3:16. It states that “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

These are profound words. I, as a believer, find them to be quite moving. However, in reality, the gist and spirit the song and scripture articulate are often (mis)used to glorify a beloved or relative’s passing for one’s gain. There is indeed the good, the bad and the ugly side of death benefits in life and, of course, in South Africa.

The good

Death or survivors’ benefits are part of the so-called nine classical risks (ie invalidity, retirement, survivors’ benefits, occupational injury and diseases, family, maternity, health insurance, sickness, and unemployment) contained in the International Labour Organisation’s Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention 102 of 1952. These benefits are aimed at enabling the survivors to cope with life after the death of the breadwinner.

In South Africa, such benefits are provided under, for example, the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, Pension Fund Act, Unemployment Insurance Act.

Some far-sighted breadwinners take life insurance policies. The aim is to provide the nominated survivors with some benefits upon their passing. These interventions are noble and should be celebrated.

I know it first-hand. My siblings and I were raised through the survivors’ benefits from the Workmen’s Compensation Fund following the untimely passing of our father due to an occupational accident. Irrespective of how little it was, it kept the proverbial wolf at bay. So, never underestimate the value of these benefits.

The bad

Notwithstanding their importance, death benefits in South Africa have a bad side.

First, there are stashes of unclaimed benefits held by all sorts of funds in the country. For example, it was estimated in April this year by the Financial Sector Conduct Authority that about 4.8 million South Africans had unclaimed pension benefits to the value of R42-billion.

This points to the most likely untenable situation of orphans and widows or widowers starving somewhere while the benefits are accumulating interest in a fund or scheme.

There are efforts to ensure that unclaimed benefits reach the intended beneficiaries. For example, the Registrar of Pension Funds maintains a central database on the Financial Sector Conduct Authority website to enable the general public to determine through a dedicated search engine whether they have unclaimed benefits.

Nevertheless, the ever-increasing hoard of unclaimed benefits tells a sad story. That is, social security funds and schemes are failing dismally to address the problem. There are plenty of reasons for the problem, and, in all fairness, many fall squarely outside the scope of influence of the funds and schemes.

For example, many breadwinners neglect to update their details (contact numbers, beneficiaries, and so on) which change from time to time.

Second and for a variety of reasons, people often keep their information about what survivors and beneficiaries stand to benefit from their demise to themselves. It is somewhat understandable. It is easier to be blamed when dead than throughout one’s life for personal decisions such as who should profit from one’s passing. It seems that, in as much as it is guaranteed that we are all going to die someday, this is not a comfortable subject to spend time contemplating — especially in one’s youth.

Let us be honest, some people are downright myopic. They fill in the necessary forms when they, for example, take up employment in their youth and forget about it. In the end, prospective beneficiaries are unlikely to claim benefits because they are oblivious to their existence.

It is these uncertainties that often set a brother against a brother or sister. In some instances, this leads to situations where in-laws are at loggerheads with sons- or daughters-in-law or vice versa.

The root cause of the tension is invariably a correct or incorrect assumption that the suspected individual(s) received the benefits. It must also be pointed out that there is a great deal of misunderstanding and ignorance about death benefits out there. But then, whose task is it to educate the general public about these benefits? This is a poignant question, especially when one considers that South Africa does not impose a legal duty on social security schemes and funds to inform the public about their rights and duties.

The ugly

When greed and the lure of money set in, people do unspeakable things. This is the ugly side of death benefits. Innocent people have been maimed, and in worse cases, paid with their lives because of someone’s desire to receive instant wealth in the form of death benefits or inheritance of any sort.

There is an abundance of stories of mariticide in South Africa. They are indeed too numerous to list. Those caught and convicted learn the hard way about the Dutch maxim de bloedige hand neemt geen erf (the bloody hand does not inherit). They rightly get time in prison without the loot.

Way forward

So how can the country deal with the above-mentioned challenges confronting death benefits in South Africa? First, the legislature must impose a legal duty on the social security schemes and funds to enlighten the beneficiaries about the inner workings of the funds and schemes, especially when it comes to the entitlement to benefits. This should be in a form accessible to all South Africans. However, legislating such a duty may take time. Accordingly, schemes and funds must be proactive in how they enlighten the public about the services and benefits that they offer.

Some funds have initiated some indirect communication initiatives to enlighten the public. These include campaigns to educate the public through popular television series. In addition, some desperate members of the population rely on investigative television shows (DStv Channel 157’s Moja Love shows, such as Mamazala and S’khipha Amafiles) to help unravel the mystery of their survivor’s benefits.

As commendable as these measures may be, they are ad hoc and intermittent. There is a need for a long-term solution that should include the use of Fourth Industrial Revolution technology. It is high time that the South African social security institutions use artificial intelligence to provide proactive and automated services to their members and their dependents. Such services should, within the ambit of the law, include those that track the legitimate beneficiaries.

Second, members of the schemes and funds must ensure that they keep their affairs in order with their social security funds or schemes. Where appropriate, employers must regularly remind their employees to update their details. There is no doubt that the problem at hand requires a team effort to resolve. Even so, the social security funds and schemes must do the heavy lifting.

All said and done, the simple aforementioned steps can ward off some serious pain and suffering for the survivors when the breadwinner dies. Hopefully, much later than sooner.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg

prof letlhokwa george mpedi
Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi
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