Durban - The South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) said on Wednesday that it had launched an investigation into a claim that an 84-year-old woman was forced to sing before she could be re-registered for her pension.
The humiliating incident is alleged to have happened about six weeks ago when Ria van Straaten went to re-register at the Sassa offices in Newcastle, her 63-year-old son, Braam, said.
He claimed his mother had been told by a Sassa official that she would not receive a new pension card unless she sang a song.
“She was given a cordless microphone and, because my mother was scared and did not know any songs, she sang Happy Birthday, much to the amusement of the person behind the counter.”
According to Van Straaten, there was only one official working at that time and the other four cubicles were not manned.
He further claimed that the incident was beamed into TV sets in the building.
However, Van Straaten would not allow the Daily News to interview his mother yesterday, saying he wanted to protect her.
“She is still very confused and traumatised. She is afraid that perhaps the government would want to punish her (by docking her pension) for having complained about the incident,” he said.
He said his mother was 70 percent blind and complained that the incident had meant that her “dignity had been trampled upon”.
Braam, who lives in Pietermaritzburg, said a Sassa official had contacted him yesterday morning – after a story had been published in a local newspaper and “generated some heat”.
Sassa spokesman, Vusi Mahaye, said the agency would only decide on its next course of action after receiving a final report from investigators, because some of the allegations did not add up.
This includes the allegation that Van Straaten had been handed a microphone to sing. Mahaye said there was no public address system at Sassa offices or at the office involved.
Also, the TVs at Sassa offices were only used to broadcast promotional DVDs or normal TV programmes, he said.
He said for the incident to have been beamed onto internal TV screens would have required a cameraman – which they do not have.
Mahaye said Sassa wanted to send a team to interview the victim but had not done so because the agency had “not given access to her”.
“Now we have been communicating with a person based in Pietermaritzburg on an incident that happened in Newcastle,” he said.
“We wanted to speak to the victim and possibly conduct an identity parade, but we have not been able to do that.”
He also explained that the registration process involved both Sassa and Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) – the company which pays social grants on behalf of Sassa. “During re-registration Sassa staff are only involved in verifying the details of the applicant.
“Once that is done the applicant moves to the next section where CPS takes over,” Mahaye said. “It would have also helped us to hear from the victim in which section this alleged incident took place.”
But Braam was adamant that the incident did take place, saying he also had a witness who had accompanied his mother to the Sassa office that day.
“But I would like to keep the identity of the witness to myself for now,” he said.
He said the Sassa official who phoned him blamed the incident on a voice recognition system that was being put in place on that day.
“Apparently people had to say words into that microphone, but what also my mother does not understand is why she alone was made to sing into that mic if it was part of the voice recognition system.”
The SA Human Rights Commission said it could not comment on the incident because it was not aware of it.
Spokesman Isaac Mangena said they could only investigate or refer the matter to other Chapter 9 institutions or law enforcement agencies once it had been brought to its attention.
Mangena said the Commission had not come across similar cases before.