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“Imeko Imaxongo. Ikati ilele eziko.”: The situation was dire. Poverty reigned.

Written by Thandokazi Silosini


Studies conducted in Brazil and South Africa have shown that “regular income assistance boosted the self-esteem and agency of women recipients” (Patel, Sugiyama and Hunter, 2023). This analysis centred on the impact of child and family cash transfers on three dimensions of empowerment namely, heightened independence in financial decision making, increased bodily autonomy, and increased psychosocial growth. MaDlamini’s joy at finally being eligible for the old person’s grant shows the ways in which social grants alleviate the indignity of poverty. Her joy at things that many might take for granted like being able to have groceries throughout the month speaks to the restoration of her dignity as a mother.


South Africans are lazy. They do not want to work. Women have babies instead so that they may get a grant from the government. Young women do not want to work or support their kids. They use their children’s grant money to get hair, nails and alcohol. These are a few of the commonly held views regarding South Africa’s extensive welfare system which supports almost half of the South African population. Many categories of people including but not limited to pensioners, disabled persons, as well as parents of minor children receive social welfare grants that support their livelihoods. The newest addition to these social relief programmes is the R350 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant which was introduced in 2020 as a way to assist South Africans through the economic devastation resulting from the COVID pandemic.


Figure 1: Rural women registering for grants with SASSA (Taken by: Zipho Xego, June 2024)


With 47% of the population receiving their grants at the beginning of every month millions of people go to town for their monthly needs. I go grocery shopping in the second week of the month. I find Mthatha particularly difficult to navigate the first seven days of the month. Town is always overflowing with people, traffic is terrible, stores are full and queues are extremely long. Month end and the 1st of the month are pay days for many people. Social grant payment dates also fall on the first seven days of the month beginning with Older Persons Grant followed by Disability Grant then Child support Grant together with, Foster Child Grant, Care Dependency Grant, War Veterans Grant. A lot of people descend into Mthatha from the urban centre, the rural peripheries and neighbouring towns to do their monthly shopping, pay bills and run errands. With all the money being received and spent, the thieves and fraudsters are also hard at work. Thus, it is also very easy to get robbed during this time. So, I avoid going into town during the first week of the month.


On pay days, shops are packed with people, tills and ATMs already have long winding queues by 10 am. I ended up spending an hour and a half standing in the queue at Shoprite. At that time, I had a chat with four women who were also in town to do grocery shopping. What began as polite small talk in a grocery store queue became a session of venting pains and sharing joys between five women who were strangers to each other. Thanks to following my grocery list with discipline and precision, I quickly finished getting my groceries and joined the unfortunately long queue to the till. I must have been standing in the queue for about ten minutes when an old lady (I’ll call her MaDlamini) came and asked if I was the last person in the queue, to which I answered yes. She proceeded to ask me to hold space for her behind me while she finishes up her shopping. I agreed. A few minutes later, a younger woman who looked more or less the same age as me joined the queue followed by two older women. As they stood behind me, I told them about the older lady I was holding space for behind me.


After a long while standing in the queue, MaDlamini returned to join the queue. Her joy was loud and palpable which changed the sombre tone of the conversation myself and the three women behind me were having. She was so happy at her trolley full of groceries, saying; “yade yasuka ikati eziko” meaning, the time of hunger is finally over. That day she received the first payment of her Older Persons grant. She came to town to withdraw her money and buy groceries. She had with her a plastic folder with documents in it which she took out and showed us. These were the SASSA documents of her Grant registration. Born in 1963 this year she turned 60. Her joy and excitement were so beautiful to listen to and watch. She kept saying that now her grandchildren will never go hungry again.


In the document she showed us, she received a sum of R3000 as her first payment and would get R2000,80 every month after the first month’s payment. She was overjoyed that she will now have a consistent income which she can support her family with. Look at all this she said pointing at her big trolley full of groceries. “Amasi, 5l. Soze baphinde balambe abazukulu bam”. Myself and the other women in the queue were with her in her joy. The other women related to her statement because they too have children and know the pain of struggling to feed them. She went further to say that she will now be able to save money because she is planning on forcing her son to go to rehab for his addiction to tsuf. The big Afrikaner Men from the rehabilitation centre advertisement she had seen were going to fix her son and get him back in line she explained.


It was interesting to hear her narrate all the plans that she has now that she has a social grant. According to Patel (2003) the most expensive child and family grants are in Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Argentina and South Africa, which has put in place the biggest social provision net in Africa. Many families in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape rely on the social welfare grants (particularly old persons grant and child support grant) as their main sources of income to make a living. The introduction of the SRD grant in 2020 opened up social welfare to the youth population of South Africa as the R350 may only be received by those who have no income and are not already recipients of other social grants.


Speaking at a Youth Small, Micro, Medium Enterprises event organised by Lulwazi Lwethu in Lusaka in Nyanga, Cape Town, Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu warned young people to use their R350 SRD grant wisely by starting their own businesses (Makora, 2023). Making the point that the future of the SRD grant is precarious, the government has not decided as to its perpetuity; she advised the youth to use their SRD grant to create income for themselves by starting businesses. Many feel that young people use their SRD grant irresponsibly. One lady complained that her daughter does her hair and nails with the money. Other young women whom I have interacted with explain how their R350 SRD grant contributes to the overall income in their homes. Thus their mothers will even demand a share of the money when they get paid.


According to Patel, Sugiyama and Hunter (2023) “empowerment is usually conceptualised in academic research where the focus tends to be on how and whether gendered norms are changing”. Thus, they take a different view which understands empowerment “as the expansion of assets and capabilities that give women more control over their lives, enhancing agency to eliminate inequities and to unleash greater freedoms”.


Indeed, this view of empowerment goes a long way to help appreciate MaDlamini’s joy at finally being eligible for the old person’s grant. Her joy at things that many might take for granted like being able to have groceries throughout the month speaks to the restoration of her dignity as a mother. Furthermore, her plans for her future and her son show a new-found agency that has been given to her by having a consistent income which she can budget for. Women’s bodily autonomy and expressions of feminine agency are greatly affected by their financial state. It is greatly documented that having money for basic needs like toiletries, hair and nails is a big part of the motivation for young women to engage in transactional romantic/sexual relationships. Thus, the dismissal of such expenditure as uneconomical or irresponsible use of the SRD grant is questionable.


References

Gray, M. (1998). Welfare policy for reconstruction and development in South Africa. International Journal of Social Work, 41(1), 23–37.


Makora, M. (2003). Askies, ‘End of the Road’ for Sassa R350 Grant. [Online]https://www.snl24.com/dailysun/news/minister-lindiwe-zulu-tells-youth-to-put-r350-sassa-grant-to-good-use-20230627.  


Patel, L., Sugiyama, N.B., and Hunter., W. (2021). Landmark study shows how child grants empower women in Brazil and South Africa. [online]  https://theconversation.com/landmark-study-shows-how-child-grants-empower-women-in-brazil-and-south-africa-157537.



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