South Africa Mends Safety Net for Elderly ; Life after Apartheid Was Supposed to Be Better for South Africa's Elders, Most of Whom Scrape by on $67 a Month

Article excerpt

Once a month, old women in brightly patterned dresses begin gathering outside a government building in Soweto with the first rays of the sun. Some will wait for hours to collect their pensions in what has become a regular, if unpleasant, ritual for three- quarters of South Africa's elderly.

Joanna Hadebe, a former maid, is typical of Soweto pensioners. Walking with a cane, and partially blind, she is still the breadwinner in her family. Both of her grown daughters are unemployed, and Mrs. Hadebe's pension of 540 rand, or $67, is all she has to feed, clothe, and shelter her family of five for a month.

"It's never enough when you pay for everything," Hadebe says, tallying up the month's expenses: She owes $6.50 to a friend who lent her money last month, $12 for the gas bill, $8 for rent. She worries that once again, her family will spend the last days of the month hungry.

Life in the new South Africa was supposed to be better for the country's elderly, many of whom bore the brunt of apartheid in their youth. But AIDS, unemployment, a falling rand, and declining foreign investment have hit the country's elders hard, leaving many with the responsibility of providing for their families long after such burdens should have been passed on to younger generations.

"You can't just leave your children without anything to eat," says Jabuleli Thambekwayo, who considers herself blessed: unlike her neighbors, she has no family to support. "The pension is so small, but they have to support their families. Not because they want to, but because there is no work in South Africa."

Exploring solutions

Intended to be a limited poverty relief program for the aged, the pensions system in South Africa has turned into a social welfare program relied on by young and old alike.

Like Hadebe, many seniors support children who are among the 37 percent of South Africans unemployed. Others, like Anna Maseloane, have been left to care for grandchildren after watching their children die of AIDS.

The national pension rate is set at $67 a month, about halfway below the official South African poverty line for a single person. The real value of the pensions, which are available to women over 60 and men over 65, has fallen in recent years, since the amount paid is not linked to inflation or automatically increased every year.

This July, for the first time in years, pensions will increase by about $3.50 a month, but the government recognizes that the increase won't dent South Africa's 43 percent poverty rate.

"This problem will not be solved by grants alone," says Mbulelo Musi, a spokesman for the Department of Social Development. "We have to find a much more comprehensive solution.... Business must play a more meaningful role, as well as unions and nonprofits."

In July, the South African parliament will begin consideration of a much-anticipated report by a government commission that is studying possible long-term poverty solutions.

Ideas that have been aired include a food-stamp-type program, grants to elders caring for orphaned children, and strengthening laws that regulate the obligations of private businesses to their former employees. …