As South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) party gears up for its annual conference in little more than two weeks, many wonder if a possible change in leadership will signal an accompanying change in social policy, especially social grants - one of the most important and controversial weapons in the fight against poverty.
As of April 2007, more than eight million South African children under the age of 14 were benefiting from a R200 (US$30) monthly grant to caregivers earning less than R800 (US$115) per month, according to new research.
Changing Social Policy: The Child Support Grant in South Africa, by sociologist Francie Lund and the country's statutory research body, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), documents the battle over the creation of the welfare grant, in a country in which shocking levels of poverty persist 13 years after the demise of apartheid.
"We had to find something that had proven effects on health, on school attendance on nutritional status," said Lund, who chaired the committee in 1995 that recommended the child grant initiative.
Women are overwhelmingly the largest receipients of the grants. But despite international studies pointing out that women were often the most effective users of welfare, "When we first introduced the idea of the grant ... [most high-level officials] were against it, saying that giving grants to women would create dependency and lead to pregnancies. I don't know if it matters that ... [the majority] were men."
A combination of sound inter-disciplinary research and the committee's understanding of HIV and AIDS helped win over initial dissenters, it did not completely silence the debate about dependency.
"It's a very controversial issue, with the latest battle over 'perverse incentives'," said HSRC researcher Dr Monde Makiwane, who has published research dispelling the notion that grants created an incentive that contributed to a high teen pregnancy rate, because young women were having babies in order to access the grant.
While Makiwane admitted that South Africa has a problem in this area, he said the level of teenage pregnancy was not unlike that of other middle-income countries like Brazil and Argentina.
"What we think people are confusing for teen pregnancy is the shift in fertility," Makiwane said. "African women are having children earlier, but stopping earlier; so if you look at a village you are more likely to find younger women expecting."
According to University of KwaZulu-Natal economics professor Charles Meth, the Child Support Grant has been a key intervention in the fight against poverty, an issue that despite South Africa's solid economic growth, has plagued President Thabo Mbeki since his 1999 election.
Ahead of the ANC's upcoming congress, at which Mbeki is seeking a third term as head of the party, his critics have argued the benefits of a 5 percent growth rate have reinforced the structural inequalities within society, and failed to make an impact on stubborn levels of unemployment running officially at over 25 percent.
The South African Institute for Race Relations, a Johannesburg think-tank, recently came under heavy criticism by the government for saying that the number of South Africans living on less than US$1 per day climbed from 1.9 million to 3.6 million between 1996 and 2001. However, the research also showed that after 2002 this number declined because social grants increased by 300 percent between 2001 and 2006.
Despite the huge rise in the uptake of social grants, civil society organisations like the Black Sash and key players in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) have called for the child grant to be extended to young people up to the age of 18, and the provision of a Basic Income Grant. "There is this huge gap between 14 and 65 years of age where most people aren't accessing anything at all," said the Black Sash's Karen Peters.
The issue of a basic income grant - an initiative to provide every citizen with a minimum monthly income - has been hotly contested within government. But there is general consensus in the ANC that the Child Support Grant should be extended, according to Selwyn Jehoma, Deputy Director-General of Social Security in the Department of Social Welfare.
"There's been some opposition in government because we can't yet argue what the benefits are for older children," he commented. "We need to build a better case around the issue, but right now there's not enough work that's been done to build a profile of need for older children," said Jehoma. Arguments against increasing the benefits had largely fallen away after recent budget surpluses.
AIDS researcher Hein Marais commented, "We are made to believe the depth and scale of South African poverty makes social welfare a necessity, but an unfortunate necessity: something we have to wean ourselves off if only we can get the economy growing fast enough."
The idea of a social welfare end-point, or an inevitable cessation, was a symptom of what Marais saw as a disconnect between social and economic policies that emerged as leaders became less inclined to view social welfare as developmental.
"We're still sitting with a fundamental schism between developmentalism and welfare-ism, and it's a schism that is translated into ... young women having babies in order to get R200 into their pockets," he said. "It is a schism that can be bridged, and has to be bridged."
Although not an ANC member, Jehoma is almost certain social grants will again be on the agenda at the party's congress on 15 December: "As long as there are so may poor people in this country, it is a conversation that is unavoidable."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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