Swaziland's government, feeling the pinch of a growing financial crisis, has suspended this quarter’s pensions for the elderly and redirected the money to pay the school fees of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC).
"[Government] will utilize the funds allocated for the elderly grants, since they have R46 million (US$6.5 million) in that account currently, with a view that it shall be reimbursed timeously," said a finance ministry report to parliament explaining how the R38 million ($5.4 million) bill for OVC school fees would be met.
The remaining $1.15 million in the account was not enough to cover the quarterly pension payout due in March and it was therefore suspended.
Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku told the Swazi senate earlier in March that a supplementary budget could ensure grants for the elderly might be available by the end of the month.
About 5 percent of Swaziland's approximately one million people are 60 years old or older and eligible for pensions. Roughly two-thirds of Swazis live below the poverty line.
The pension stipends are indispensable for many of the elderly, as there is no alternative form of social security and private sector pensions are rare. The grants were increased two years ago from $21 per quarter to $85 and are paid four times a year.
But a loaf of bread costs about $1, so most people subsist on maize-meal, supplemented by wild spinach, edible herbs, emasi (sour milk) and occasionally meat.
"You cannot live on such money [as government provides] but it can help you survive," said Gogo Khumalo, a 70-year-old widower in rural Mliba, 100km east of the capital, Mbabane.
Like many Swazi grandmothers, she is the primary caregiver of five grandchildren aged between 5 and 19 years, whose mother left the homestead to seek employment in town after her husband, Khumalo’s son-in-law, died a few years ago.
Swaziland has the world's highest HIV prevalence rate - 26.1 percent - and one in four Swazis between the ages of 15 and 49 are living with the virus.
"They tell us on the radio on the day to come [and get our pensions], and the neighbours tell me because the radio my son gave me, the battery is dead," she said. This month the government radio service told grantees not to fetch their pensions.
Mbabane recently saw the largest anti-government protests in years, sparked by the construction of "vanity projects" like a new $1 billion international airport, built at the expense of social services.
|Taking from the elderly to meet the needs of OVC is stealing from Peter to pay Paul|
Teachers, nurses and students made up the bulk of the 5,000 to 7,000 protesters, and the link between using the grants of the elderly - who often provide care, food and shelter for children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic - to pay for their school fees instead, was not lost on them.
"We need to set priorities. Taking from the elderly to meet the needs of OVC is stealing from Peter to pay Paul," Solomon Thwala, a primary school teacher, told IRIN. "There are sources of funding other than putting the elderly in jeopardy."