Living on the edge
Brendan Boyle reports
One in four South Africans survives on government payouts.
Policymakers who doubt the benefits of South Africa’s post-apartheid welfare system should meet Anna Zikhali and the remnants of her family.
In the dark shade of her matchbox home on a northern KwaZulu-Natal hillside, she endures the tragedy of her life and thanks her God for the R870 she walks painfully to collect each month from a pension payout point across a valley from her home.
Zikhali will turn 95 some time this year.
Her hope is that she will live long enough for someone else in her family to negotiate the bureaucratic maze of government and successfully sign up for one of the welfare grants that secure the lives of one in four South Africans.
In his October 2007 Budget update, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel forecast that the welfare bill would rise to R68-billion in the next financial year, accounting for more than 11% of total government spending and 3.2% of the nation’s total economic output.
In rural areas such as Zikhali’s hilly district, pay day has become a highlight of the month.
Traders set up outside the pay point to sell clothes, household goods, drinks and treats to those waiting in the queue, micro lenders gather to collect from those forced to borrow during the month and agents hawk insurance and funeral policies.
“This is the one day of the month when the goods come to them, rather than their having to pay transport to go to a town with a supermarket,” said Professor Francis Lund, who has conducted extensive research into the impact of welfare on poor communities.
Zikhali shares the homestead —and her pension —with daughter Katherine and five great-grandchildren. Apart from Mavis, who is in a Durban hospital “suffering from fits”, everyone else has died.
“I worry about these children because they don’t get grants and there is nobody working in this house. I worry because, next time, I will die and there will be no money,” she says through an interpreter.
Zikhali knows exactly what her pension buys: 50kg of mealie meal at R238, 5kg of sugar beans at R49, 5 litres of cooking oil at R42 and a bag of potatoes for R32, she says.
School fees are R60 per year, a pair of Toughie school shoes costs R120 for each child and then there are shorts, dresses, shirts, jerseys and a few other clothing items. After that there is not much left.
In a similar homestead not far away, Lephina Nthuli puts a name to the cause of her misery —Aids. Her older children are dead from it, a younger son is too old to qualify for child support and only two of the five grandchildren she is raising have been registered for the government’s child-support grant of R200 a month.
“I have no house. I am very, very poor; I have no husband to help and I have no child who is working,” she says.
Hawking a few vegetables and making grass mats adds R200 or R300 a month to the government grant.
“Life is getting better ... a little, little bit better,” she concedes.
That is also the conclusion of the extensive research done in this community to the north and west of Mthubathuba, just an hour’s drive from the holiday and retirement homes of St Lucia. It is also the conclusion of a study by Anne Case of Princeton University in the U S, whose work in the Langeberg district of the Western Cape in 2001 showed that children raised in grant- assisted households grow taller than their less fortunate peers.
The privately funded Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies has tracked the lives of more than 100 000 people in the area with twice- yearly interviews over many years. Its data is a gold mine for researchers trying to understand the effects that welfare has in a community.
Its reported research debunks the popular theory that grants are abused, encourage drinking and cause mothers to abandon their children.
Broadly, it indicates that a grant makes it possible for one or two household members to leave and look for work, knowing there is a regular income to support children left in the care of relatives.
Migrants do send less money home when there is a government income, but they do not stop just because their dependents have another source of income. Research suggests that, on average, remittances drop by 20% to 40%.
The flip side is that children in grant-supported homes are more likely to go to school and to stay there longer.
Lund, who spends part of her year at the University of Natal, has reported on research done with Case and others in the Mthubathuba area that suggests it is the more responsible parents who manage to get through the obstacles and successfully apply for help. They found that more than eight out of 10 children for whom a grant had been secured lived with their mothers. Only 67% of children not in the grant system lived with their mothers, indicating either that the grant helped to keep mother and child together, or that mothers who were organised enough to manage to keep their children were also likely to be organised enough to arrange a grant.
“This finding is very important as it is inconsistent with the popular belief — indeed, the popular fear — that mothers apply for the grant and then leave their children in someone else’s care,” Lund and her colleagues reported.
While researchers hunt down the best strategies to help the poor mainly through data, Catholic priest Declan Doherty and lay colleague Johan Viljoen live the daily reality as they range among the hills surrounding their Mthubathuba mission. Doherty speaks and teaches Zulu, but he is as Irish as his name. He has been deployed in the area by his Order of the Servants of Mary for more than 40 years, first to alleviate the effects of apartheid and now mostly to fight the effects of poverty and HIV/Aids.
They manage a network of 150 local volunteers who offer home-based care to around 1200 people incapacitated by Aids, and a US-funded programme that dispenses antiretroviral medicine to more than 700 people, with about 50 more joining the programme every day. Doherty says Zikhali’s fear for her great- grandchildren after her death reflects one of the great challenges of the region —Aids is cutting out a generation. “Soon, there are not going to be any gogos (grandmothers),” he says.
Apart from the distances people have to travel to apply for birth certificates and identity documents, the process takes so long that many parents trying to secure their children’s future die before it can be completed.
Various agencies have deployed volunteers to help people to apply for the life- saving support offered by the government, but Viljoen said thousands were still not getting into the system.
“If your mother died without having an ID, there is no way you can meet the requirements of the law. In many cases there is no way around that. If the mother does not have an old reference book or a death certificate or anything, it is impossible.
“Just anecdotally I would say no more than half the children are getting help. People know it’s there, they know how much it is, they know how to get it, but they don’t have the necessary documentation to get it,” Viljoen said.
Those who have missed the boat are easy to spot.
They are the houses where school-aged children in rags watch their uniformed peers walk off to class.
They are the houses where R360 a year —the cost of one uniform and a year’s fees —is still too much.
The government intends buying five million hectares of land next year in an effort to have 30% of agricultural land in the hands of about 10000 black farmers by 2014, Agriculture Minister Lulu Xingwana said this week.
At present, black farmers own 4.7% of farmland.
She hoped that half of the outstanding land claims would be settled by the end of 2008.
These were mostly rural claims held up by disagreements between tribal chiefs over where boundaries lay and by white farmers disputing the validity of claims. Expropriation would be used to settle claims not finalised by the end of 2008, she said. — Sapa