OPINION | Mboweni must answer why state refuses to extend Social Relief of Distress to women

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For decades since the defeat of the German Nazi government in the Second World War, Germany embraced the process of ‘vergangenheitsbewaltigung’ to advance recognition of the obligations of the nation to the victims of the Nazi Third Reich.

On 8 May 1985, former Federal President of West German, Richard von Weizsacker, said at the Bundestag: “In our country, a new generation has grown up to assume political responsibility. Our young people are not responsible for what happened over 40 years ago. But they are responsible for the historical consequences.”

Apartheid was a similar monstrous state-led destruction of humanity and human dignity. Aimed at advancing white supremacy, the effect was to denigrate Black people in general, and Black women in particular. As a nation, we should be vigilant in improving and defending the rights of all, but black women in particular given our egregious past.

Our state is not responsible for what happened under Apartheid, but we are responsible for the historical consequences. This is not just a moral responsibility, but a Constitutional obligation that binds the state to use state resources to “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice, and fundamental human rights; Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law”.

So why is the state refusing to extend Social Relief of Distress to women and Black women in particular? This is a question that the Minister of Finance must be called on to answer when he tables the National Budget this week.

Following the announcement of the first hard lockdown last year, the President led with the announcement of an extremely pro-poor rollout of social grant relief to poor people. For the first time in our history, working-age people were given access to income grants.

For the seven million poor women who take care of the millions of children in South Africa, relief was granted in the form of a monthly Caregiver’s Grant of R500. For the millions of poor working-age adults who don’t take care of children, access to a R350 monthly Social Relief of Distress Grant was made available.

South Africa was making good on our constitutional promises and guarantees that the injustices of the past would be addressed through the policies of today. The guarantee of access to social assistance to those in need, promised in Section 27(1)(c) of the Constitution, was felt in some way by millions of poor and destitute people, trapped in poverty through a complex weave of the legacies of the past.

And yet, in the face of the crucial research that tracked the beneficial impact of these grants, in October 2020 the Caregiver’s Grant, with all the other grant top- ups fell away. This research showed the impact on people’s needs and on the seeds of a stimulus- driven economic recovery. At the eleventh hour it was announced that the Social Relief of Distress (SRoD) Grant would continue for three months until January 2021, and in the SONA last week the President announced the welcome news that this will be extended for another three month period.

While this is extremely welcome news to the six million-odd people who receive it, the tragedy is that the women who care for the children who receive the means-tested Child Support Grants, can not apply for a SRoD, because they are listed as grant recipients -not beneficiaries but proxy recipients- of the grants for the children.

Good people of social conscience should be protesting the extremely low level of the monthly R350 SRoD grant. This amount is just under 60% of the starvation line of the extreme Food Poverty Line set by StatsSA. But right now, what good people of social conscience need to be saying is: end this discrimination to women that does not allow women who care for poor children to receive Social Relief of Distress for their own needs. We have a Constitution that promises this relief to all and binds the state to provide it. This, not bailing out state-owned airways, needs to come out of this week’s budget. Extending the SRoD to current beneficiaries for 12 months will cost R27 billion for the coming financial year. Adding the women who look after children for the same period will bring the total bill to just under just under R60 billion.

Most unequal country

South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, not the poorest. As an upper-middle-income country, we have the resources. We are just not even-handed in terms of who receives these resources. We can afford to do this, and we must.

Of the 58.4 million people in South Africa, 28.5 million are male, and 29.8 million female.

Five point six million women were unemployed in the last quarter of labour force statistics, and another 7.7 million working age women were not economically active. Fewer men were unemployed – 5.5 million unemployed and a further 5.6 million not economically active – over the same period.

Unemployment is a key driver of poverty in South Africa.

More children are raised by single mothers than single fathers. This places further financial strain on households if poor women can’t get grants for themselves. Statistics show that 42% of children are raised by single mothers, 4% by single fathers, 32.7% by both parents and 21.3% of children by neither parent.

These mothers are the women who are not able to claim the SRoD Grant for themselves if they receive grants for their children. Just over seven million women receive the Child Support Grants as recipients for children, compared to 166 197 men.

Continuing to refuse SRoD to caregivers will lead to a clear harm to women, contrary to the Constitutional guarantee against unfair discrimination on the grounds of gender. This is also a violation on the grounds of race as the majority of poor women affected are poor Black African women.

Let all good people of social conscience tell Treasury that the state has no choice but to extend the SRoD to women. Let us own the historical consequences of our inhumane past by recognising our common humanity today. This opinion piece has been written by Isobel Frye, the Director of Studies at the Poverty and Inequality Institute in Johannesburg.