SOCIAL GRANTS Liberating women or confining them to the home?
For its level of development South Africa has a remarkably comprehensive system of social welfare grants, many of which benefit women. Nevertheless, women remain disadvantaged in many respects. PROFESSOR SHIREEN HASSIM of the University of the Witwatersrand spoke on ‛Gender, social policy and the developmental state in South Africa’. She explored how social policy might contribute more fully to a democratic, developmental South Africa.
Contradicting worldwide neo-liberal down- sizing of welfare, almost one in four citizens of South Africa benefit from a social grant, making it in these terms one of the world’s most generous states.
But there are limitations: the rollout of basic services to households faces many challenges, and there is disquiet at the dependency implied by a ‘welfare state’. Furthermore – this was Hassim’s focus – the welfare system does not necessarily challenge embedded social inequalities. The vision of the socially responsible developmental state should oblige policy-makers to think about the minimum conditions necessary for making social rights a reality. However, this focus is often lost when ideas are translated into projects.
Schools and hospitals and other care-giving institutions are important, but they are intertwined with households. When public institutions do not work well, the households where women work become ‘shock absorbers’. Services not delivered by the public sector, especially to the very young and very old, are picked up by families and communities, and this generally means women.
For example, the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) provides livelihoods for poor women, young people and the disabled. But its impact is limited and temporary because it transfers insufficient skills to enable beneficiaries to operate effectively in the market.
Spending on social grants is not everything. We need to look at the burdens borne by different people and at the presuppositions of decision-makers. These are questions about norms and values. They are also often questions about gender. For example, how are the burdens stemming from unemployment and HIV distributed?
Who cares for children and the ill? What kinds of institution are being strengthened, and which weakened? What impact does this have on the goal of gender equality?
Schools and hospitals and other care-giving institutions are important, but they are intertwined with households. When public institutions do not work well, the households where women work become ‘shock absorbers’. Services not delivered by the public sector, especially to the very young and very old, are picked up by families and communities, and this generally means women. A superficial celebration of women as household managers obscures the need to question this uneven pattern of social responsibility.
Similarly, home-based care for the sick is only recognised officially in the context of projects run by community-based NGOs. There is no relief for individual women in households. The young are targeted, but many of the middle-aged women, who are providing the bulk of care and who most need support, are missed. In short, the rhetoric of expanding capabilities is used, but in implementation more traditional discourses that see care as women’s work predominate. Class and gender are crowded out by long-established apartheid patterns. The role that hospices might fill, vital in the age of AIDS, is pushed onto women. Thus we do not have the kinds of outcomes we would wish to see in a country committed from the Constitution downwards to women’s equality: women’s labour continues to subsidise failures in the state system.
Social justice is not achieved by simply handing out grants
Hassim provoked lively discussion and interesting differences of emphasis. What is the purpose of social grants: are they to support vulnerable people in the situations in which they find themselves, or should they also aim to transform social relations?
Specifically, should women be supported in their often subordinate positions, or should state resources be used to contribute to transforming gender relations?
The presentation put social justice firmly on the agenda, demonstrating that social policies are not gender-neutral, said respondent Professor Leila Patel. The question is, however, how to translate the complex idea of transforming social relations into practical policy. What would be the indicators of success or failure? Who is falling between the cracks?
Patel related the discussion to her research in Doornkop and Soweto on women and social grants. Women comprise 96% of beneficiaries in her sample. Her findings suggest that women largely control grants. They utilise these resources prudently and they contribute to food security, child survival, schooling, specialised health and prepaid services like electricity and water. However, the grants are small, and this in itself limits the potential of such programmes to transform societies.
Specifically, shouldwomen be supported in their often subordinate positions, or should state resources be used to contribute to transforming gender relations?
Women continue to carry out functions that state institutions might be expected to undertake. Their situations are often worsened by the widespread non-payment of maintenance by fathers of their children. The Director General of the Department of Agriculture said that social grants protect the weak under capitalism, and anticipate another, liberatory, social logic. There is a tendency to fall into a pattern of delivery to passive recipients: this lack of empowerment is reflected in service delivery protests. A developmental state should help people to help themselves. The South African economy at the moment cannot support a basic income grant, desirable though that is.
Resources must be used with care, and social grants represent the best that can be afforded towards enabling people to live dignified lives. However, there is no question of paying people to look after their children. Work of this kind in the private sphere should be shared, but cannot be paid for by the state.
Hassim recognised the real progress that had been made. The sort of questions she was asking were: what would society look like if there were hospices for the terminally ill rather than relying on stressed and desperate women? If there were child-care centres where women would be employed rather than struggling in comparative isolation at home?
These are difficult questions, going to the heart of cultural understandings of care – she herself grew up in an environment where a family member in an old-age home would be indicative of shameful family dysfunction.
But instead of reinforcing ideas of women being the carers, should we not be building public welfare in a more sustainable way? What basic standard of living is required? How can we create jobs so that we do not have one in four citizens relying on these small amounts of money?
Let us have a national discussion on social spending, Hassim said, but not one limited to rands and cents: let us talk about how such spending affects social and especially gender relations, and how, perhaps, it could be deployed to bring about a more democratic, socially equal, South Africa.