Answer to a question from a reader

My son has schizophrenia. SASSA has declined his disability grant application. What can I do?

The short answer

Perhaps your most immediate action should be to appeal this denial.

The whole question

Dear Athalie

My son is being denied a disability grant by SASSA. My son has been diagnosed as schizophrenic and has been unable to work since he was 18, The medical officer doing the assessment simply said, “No, you can go work.”

The long answer

Shocking and infuriating as this comment is, it is far from rare, and I will go into some of the reasons for this kind of response below.

But perhaps your most immediate action should be to appeal this denial. 

The SASSA website says: “Your application form will be completed in the presence of an officer from SASSA. If SASSA does not approve your application, you will be given valid reasons why the application has been declined in writing. You have the right to ask SASSA to reconsider your application, if you’re unhappy with their decision. You can also appeal to the Minister of Social Development in writing, explaining why you disagree. This appeal must be lodged within 90 days of you being informed of the outcome of your initial application.” 

SASSA National Call Centre at 0800 601011.

As Grocott’s Mail says, “The right to appeal is covered in Section 33 of the Constitution which says that everyone has the right to administrative action which is lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair. And that everyone whose rights have been adversely affected by administrative action has the right to written reasons.This constitutional right is enforced by the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (PAJA, 2000) which provides for having adverse administrative decisions reviewed.”

Below is a summary of a 2019 article by Grocotts Mail on the procedure to follow when appealing a SASSA decision:

The process:

  • You have a right to appeal within 90 days of receiving your letter from SASSA declining your disability grant application, and giving reasons why;

  • The appeal is conducted by the Independent Tribunal for Social Assistance Appeals;

  • But before you can appeal to the Tribunal, you must use the internal SASSA appeal mechanism, which means you must submit a written ‘Application for Reconsideration’ to SASSA;

  • If SASSA does not reconsider, you must submit the following documents to the Tribunal:

  1. Proof of your application;

  2. Previous or current medical reports;

  3. Proof of your income and assets;

  4. The SASSA rejection letter. 

If the Tribunal does not reverse the SASSA decision, you can go to court to challenge it. You can also file a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). The SAHRC says that disability is one of their seven focus areas to promote and protect human rights in South Africa.

On the SAHRC website, you can download a complaint form. On this form you will have to fill in:

  • Your full name, race and gender (for statistical purposes only), your physical and postal address, email, telephone – and your preferred way of communicating;

  • Full details of what has happened, dates and place, what human right has been violated, and if it involves any organ of state;

  • What you have done so far to resolve the complaint;

  • Contact details for any person who can supply further information;

  • Whether the complaint is urgent;

  • Any other relevant details and documents that can be used in the investigation.

The investigation is likely to take a fair amount of time. 

As I said above, there are various reasons for this kind of response by the SASSA medical officers. A 2018 report on Social Protection and Disability in South Africa by the UK organisation provides a useful framework for understanding some of the dysfunctional aspects of SASSA’s system:

The report says that the reasons for many people being denied disability grants are the result of inadequate human resource capacity within the government of South Africa, particularly in SASSA and the Department of Health. Yet, they say, assessments for disability benefits have to be undertaken by Medical Officers (doctors) employed by the state. There are about 360 state doctors employed and many of them do not have the requisite knowledge to conduct an assessment. SASSA provides some four initial hours of training for the doctors who must assess disability, but it is only administrative training. As these doctors have to assess a very wide range of disability, there are many aspects that go beyond the competence of many general practitioners. (I would imagine that assessing disability for mental health reasons is one of these aspects.)

As a result of the lack of capacity among assessors, decisions can be very arbitrary, with each Medical Officer applying different criteria. “Overall, very little time is available for Medical Officers to assess patients: even in a scenario of a maximum of 40 assessments in an 8-hour day, only around 10 minutes would be available for each consultation and that would include the time spent filling in the form.” 

Often, says the report, a person who has been denied the disability grant is advised to apply again rather than appeal.

The report goes on to say the following about assessing whether people are able to work: “Medical Officers do not have the training to make an assessment on whether people are able to gain employment. The assessment is meant to take into account the context of the actual labour market, which is not within the capacity of doctors to assess. They may, therefore, assess that someone is able to work when, due to the interaction of the social and economic environment with the person’s impairment and skills, he or she may, in reality, be unable to find employment. (my emphasis)

Regarding the Tribunal which must review SASSA’s decision if you appeal, the report says: 

As with the Medical Officers undertaking the assessments, the Department of Social Development (DSD) finds it challenging to recruit specialist doctors onto the Tribunals – which operate in each region – since the pay is not regarded as high enough. This, therefore, reduces the capacity of the Tribunals to make the correct decisions.

The Tribunal makes its decision on the basis of the documentation available but, when the Tribunal considers that the documentary evidence is inadequate, it can request that an additional medical assessment be carried out.

The Tribunal makes an appointment for the applicant to see the relevant specialist. However, since these must be made via the public health system, they can take anywhere between three to nine months, making this a potentially lengthy process. The decision of the Tribunal is binding on SASSA.

If the Tribunal upholds the original SASSA decision to deny the application for a disability grant, you can take it to court for a judicial review. The court’s decision is binding on SASSA, but, says the report, SASSA defends every case. 

In the 2022 Groundup article by Barbara October that you refer to in your email, the Black Sash has recommended that the assessing medical practitioners receive more in-depth training on intellectual and mental disabilities as well as how it impacts a person’s ability to function. (my emphasis)

As the Black Sash has much experience with these issues, it may be helpful for you to ask for their help and advice in your son’s case.

These are their contact details:


Helpline: 072 66 33 73 or 072 633 3739 or 063 610 1865.

Wishing you the best,

Answered on Oct. 2, 2023, 10:43 a.m.

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