Public Sector

Supporting millions of South Africans through the pandemic 

Caesar Vundule, General Manager: Information Management at SASSA, explains how digitization helped support millions throughout the pandemic

Please give us a quick introduction to the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA). What does the organization do? 

SASSA is responsible for supporting some of the most vulnerable people by paying social grants and cash transfers to over 18.9 million South Africans. The primary beneficiaries are people over the age of 60, people with disabilities and children whose parents or caregivers are unable to provide for them. In addition, SASSA provides temporary social relief to individuals and families affected by disasters or other temporary hardships.  

One of the major temporary reliefs that we have been dispensing since 2020 is the COVID-19 SRD grant, which we disperse monthly to over seven million people between the ages of 18 and 59. Each month, we make payments to almost 47% of South Africa’s population. What’s so exciting about working at SASSA is that we are playing a part in making so many people’s lives easier and better. 

Making so many payments each month must be a huge administrative challenge. How do you keep the process running smoothly? 

It’s certainly a complex task. To pay the right people the right amounts at the right time, we need efficient business processes backed by robust information management capabilities. Until recently, most of our services were manual and required face-to-face interactions with clients. We used to depend heavily on paper to deliver our services, but in 2015 we started transitioning to a digital approach, commencing with a new enterprise content management platform. That’s helped us to boost efficiency significantly, which became particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What impact did the pandemic have on your ability to support citizens? 

When COVID-19 struck, we had to work in a much more flexible way to ensure we could continue to get financial support to people who need it. At the time, the law required applicants for social grants to come to a SASSA office—but with local lockdowns and social distancing measures in place, that was impossible. So, there was an urgent need to offer people an alternative way to apply. 

We introduced convenient, technology-enabled channels such as WhatsApp, Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) messages, call centers and web apps to enable citizens to apply for services. We also expanded our electronic payment channels by introducing mobile money payments transfers, which supplement traditional banking channels and over-the-counter services at post offices. 

You mentioned that you started the transition from paper to digital several years ago. By the time COVID-19 hit, where were you on that journey? 

Our mission is to deliver social grants in the most efficient way possible, so digital transformation has been one of our key pillars for quite some time. Prior to the pandemic, we had already engaged OpenTextTM to help us scan 60 million paper files stored in records management centers across nine provinces. By 2020, the OpenText technology was used to process and store around 10 million documents into digital records.  

The COVID-19 lockdowns forced us to fast-track the digital journey that we had already started. Social assistance regulations (i.e., the regulations that prescribe how social assistance should be processed and which eligibility criteria apply) require us to examine multiple records to determine that applications are legitimate before we issue grants. It was clear during the lockdowns that we had to replace some of our manual processes. 

What was the next step; how did you build on the OpenText platform to enable people to apply for support grants from home? 

We kicked off a new project with OpenText in July 2020 to build an online workflow for grant applications. OpenText showed us how to deploy automated forms with OpenText LiquidOffice, enabling us to capture the information we need from applicants via a web browser. By combining intelligent forms with OpenText AppWorks, we rapidly built digital workflows for all our social grants—eliminating the need for people to apply in person. Today, applicants upload digital copies of supporting documentation instead of paper, which significantly reduces time spent on administration. We started processing the first online grant applications just three months later, in September 2020. 

That’s an outstanding result! What impact has the digital application process had since you launched it? 

The first and most important impact is that SASSA could continue to support people with social grants despite the far-reaching disruption caused by COVID-19. With many more people facing financial hardship, it was crucial to make it as easy as possible to get support—and with OpenText LiquidOffice and OpenText AppWorks, that’s exactly what we achieved.  

In the bigger picture, continuing the move towards paperless processes also had a big impact on sustainability. It takes around 200 liters of water to produce the paper for just one grant application, so the environmental benefits of moving to a digital approach are clear. By digitizing the application process, SASSA is helping to save trees, save water and save energy resources. This is significant given the energy crisis and power outages that are affecting South Africa. 

If you were talking to someone in your situation at another government agency, what advice would you give them? 

The most important thing I’ve learned is that it’s far better to digitize at the source rather than attempting to digitize a paper record later during a process. As long as your business processes create paper records, you’ll be locked in a never-ending cycle of scanning. Instead, focus on creating online services from the outset. That way, you can eliminate the paper flowing into the business, which saves time and empowers you to focus on what matters: serving your customers and stakeholders. 

To learn more about how SASSA is leveraging its digital channels to support people across South Africa, click here to read the OpenText success story. 

Caesar Vundule, General Manager at SASSA

About the author: Caesar Vundule is the General Manager: Information Management and Enterprise Architecture at the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA). He served as Acting Chief Information Officer at SASSA from March 2015 to January 2016. Mr. Vundule has played a major role in SASSA’s digital transformation journey over the last 10 years, including the development of a single electronic registry for SASSA’s records. SASSA pays more than 18.5 million grants every month. In addition, the Agency pays more than 5 million COVID SRD grants every month. Before joining SASSA in 2006, Mr. Vundule was the Head of the Information Resource Management department at the National Energy Regulator of South Africa. He also served as the Director for Information & Epidemiology at North West province’s Department of Health.


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