Open Mic Section: The Social grants And Black Women In South Africa

KC JOURNAL NO 22 July 2009

Maria van Driel argues that government’s neoliberal approach to social grants has seen an increase in poverty, with women suffering the most, in spite of increases in government spending on the grants in the past few years


Since SA’s first democratic elections in 1994, there is a significant increase in social inequality amongst black people, especially amongst black women. This is linked to the implementation of the government’s neoliberal Growth Economic and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy in 1996. Since then one million retrenchments occurred, associated with deregulation, trade liberalisation and lean production. Unemployment is currently at 40%, and 70% of this is people under the age of 30. Statistics South Africa confirms that women generally have lower incomes, higher unemployment and less access to assets than men. Women also have little promotion and/or training in the workplace, and are locked into gendered jobs. The apartheid nexus of colour, class and gender remain the determinants of deep-seated social and economic inequalities for working people, especially black women. This is exacerbated by GEAR policies such as the privatisation of basic services, increased user fees for education and health care, jobless growth and precarious forms of work. Black women are more adversely affected by poverty and rising unemployment. The current crisis and the state’s commitment to continue the neoliberal course means that the situation in black working class communities will deteriorate further.

Black women and social reproduction in SA

In SA, under neoliberalism, black women bear the burden of social reproduction in their families. The nature of social reproduction of substantial sections of black working people in SA, especially single black women and children, is based on a social grant.

From April 2003 to April 2007, the number of people receiving the four main social grants increased consistently, especially in the poorest provinces – the Eastern Cape, Kwazulu Natal and Limpopo. The Foster Care Grant (FCG), also for children, three times the amount of the Child Support Grant (CSG), is for non-biological parents, and constitutes only 3% of the total recipients. However, CSG recipients increased the most, from 2.6 million in 2003 to 7.8 million in 2007, an increase of 300%. The increase reflects the expansion of the CSG initially for children from 0-7 years in 1997, to 0-14 years in 2007. The steep increase in the total number of recipients, especially for Old Age Pension Grants (OAP), Disability Grants (DG) and CSGs, reflects the increased access of all South Africans to social grants after Apartheid. However, the 300% increase in the CSGs and its predominance (67%) nationally over the other grants, reflects the conditions under which 8 million children live, in families with low ‘means-test compliance’ income. 

Social grants in a neoliberal context

While Government’s spending on the social grants increased significantly research illustrates that this has not reversed the drift into poverty by the majority of the population. Neoliberalism as a social and economic doctrine represents a particular response to the crisis of profitability that affected the capitalist world economy in the 1970s. Following the end of the Second World War the social democratic consensus socialised key elements of social reproduction, including education, provision of basic amenities like water and energy, transport, health, pensions for aged, unemployment benefits and so on. The idea of ‘grants’ did not feature in this paradigm, as citizenship bestowed certain rights, including access to employment.

In its search for profitability, the new neoliberal orthodoxy de-socialised these key elements of social reproduction, or at least attempted to. This meant ending state provision or subsidisation of the cost of these elements to the individual citizen. The policy of privatisation of social services and state enterprises in general was thus meant to bring these services into the orbit of the market. While this de-socialisation is proving difficult to complete in the north, in the south, various institutions and social actors have pushed through changes that have realised the de-socialisation of key elements of social reproduction.

In South Africa, as the grant was extended to more people, new expenses were being added to their basket. The installation of pre-paid water and electricity meters, the lack of affordable public transport, the rising costs of education, all exert a downward pressure on the real value of the grants. Contrary to Rashad Cassim’s (Deputy Director, Stat SA) contention that “The grants have been a central factor in reducing poverty,” the grants’ location in a neoliberal framework has undermined their potentially positive impact.

The discourse of ‘grants’ is itself a neoliberal discourse. ‘Grants’ are not regarded as a ‘pension’ as they bear no relationship to the income the recipient earned when they worked. In this sense, ‘grants’ are a form of state philantrophy – an attempt by the state to deal with the ‘plight of the poor and marginalised’. Grants are therefore not seen as a right earned by the recipient’s contribution to national development. The South African state’s attitude to grants as a form of state philantrophy, comes up in the way grants are associated with ‘dependency’ – grants are not payment for services rendered, but are a favour granted by a benevolent state.

The way different child grants are valued points to another way in which grants are positioned in a neoliberal discourse. Since women’s unpaid labour is not recognised, the CSG makes provision for the child, but not for the mother – whose labour mediates the grant and the needs of the child. It appears that the reasoning is that the biological mother should perform unpaid labour, and non-biological mothers should be paid as they are positioned in a similar position to the creche’s school-teacher. Foster-care parents are thus recognised because they are positioned in a manner analogous to the market, whereas biological mothers are not. This contrasts with the State Maintenance Grant (SMG) to parents (largely white women) under Apartheid, acknowledging their labour as primary caregivers. The SMG was replaced by the CSG – excluding parents, especially women – in 1997/8.

Given the workload, the grants, especially the CSGs, are viewed as ‘women’s work’. With the FCGs – three times the CSGs amount – the state lowers the burden on non-biological parents. In comparison, CSG recipients are predominantly black, biological mothers, but they receive one- third of what children on the FCG gets. While all children have similar needs, the state differentiates between ‘non-biological’ and ‘biological’ children.

Effectively, ‘biological’ children get less state support thereby increasing the burden on black women. While women are blamed for ‘dependency on the grant’, the state provides no support for black women between 14 and 60 years, despite their vital caregivers’ role in social reproduction – in producing the next generation of workers and providing for ‘caring needs’.

Family Forms and social Reproduction

In SA single women with children have become a significant family form. During the democratic transition, many women moved into RDP homes. This was (partly) indicative of their new democratic Constitutional rights: black women are no longer minors under husbands, fathers and sons. However, through the specific form of the social grants – especially the 8 million CSG recipients – the state reinforces black women in conventional childcare positions, and in social reproduction in general. Black women with a mean age of 36, at the height of their productive potential, are structurally forced into being caregivers, with little prospect of improving the quality of their lives (and their children), or exercising their human potential.

Even though they underwrite the state and capital accumulation with their unpaid labour, black women’s work is not socially and economically valued.

Black women recipients are made to feel that they are a burden on the state, whereas their impoverishment results from current capitalist restructuring and accumulation patterns. Women’s oppression it seems, doesn’t hinge on a specific family form, but the way in which social reproduction is organised in its totality. In other words, the sexual division of labour characteristic of the patriarchal nuclear family is not overcome when women move out of this family form. Instead, this sexual division of labour is transferred to the level of society as a whole, and so the role of women as carers is re-established on new historical grounds.


In SA the social grants make a difference in people’s lives. The grants are a lifeline to recipients and their families, tottering on the brink of poverty, but do not enable recipients to break the cycle of poverty. The reality is that black people, especially women and children are subsisting and sinking into poverty. Black women’s own potential and development is structurally hampered as they are responsible for social reproduction. In post apartheid SA, black women’s oppression occurs under conditions of democracy, and far-reaching Constitutional rights. The gap between rights and reality continues to widen, and in the long-run this may threaten democracy itself.

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