Bitter Harvest: Gail Smith Discusses the Renewed Fight against Poverty in the New South Africa. (South Africa in Focus)

By Smith, Gail | Colorlines Magazine, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Bitter Harvest: Gail Smith Discusses the Renewed Fight against Poverty in the New South Africa. (South Africa in Focus)


Smith, Gail, Colorlines Magazine


Seven years after the first democratic elections in South Africa, the promises of the revolution have turned into a bitter harvest for the majority of South Africans. Nearly 50 percent are unemployed and 53 percent live in conditions of abject poverty. Forty percent of the population earns less than 3 percent of the national income, while the richest 10 percent garner 50 percent. The dual scourge of malnutrition and AIDS is pounding South Africa, with one out of every seven adults now infected with HIV.

The ANC government faces daunting challenges and has certainly made important advances. However, according to critics like Hassen Mohamed of the Development Resources Centre (DRC), an advocacy organization working to mobilize the poor and working class, "It is quite evident that the ANC government is more inclined to accommodate international business and agencies, rather than its grassroots supporters and the population."

For the poor, social security is a right only secured through struggle. This struggle is likely to be spearheaded by labor and civil society organizations. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), South Africa's largest labor confederation, has recently joined forces with organizations such as the Treatment Action Campaign, the Black Sash, the South African Council of Churches, the Catholic Bishops Conference, the Alliance for Children's Entitlement to Social Security (ACESS) and the DRC, to campaign for a more equitable social security system, and to take decisive action against poverty. One of their central demands is that a guaranteed income known as the Basic Income Grant (BIG) of 100 rand (about $10) per month be paid to all South Africans, from cradle to grave. The BIG is seen as a partial antidote to South Africa's current social security system, which excludes most of the poor.

"BIG could be considered a form of reparations," says Fiona Tregenna of Cosatu.

No Security, Much Privation

My work as coordinator of a project to research children's experiences of poverty has taken me from the illusion of wealth among the middle class of Johannesburg to the deepest privation and suffering. Traveling around the country, I have met children who represent a fraction of the millions who are falling between the cracks of the social security system and who are living in the direst of circumstances. Hearing the statistic that one in five children are stunted due to malnutrition does not prepare one to meet children who go to bed hungry on a daily basis or who speak dispassionately about losing parents and siblings one after the other to AIDS.

I have met little girls rendered mute with grief and distress at having lost mothers to AIDS and then thrust into situations that neither welcome them nor have the resources to support them. Many of these girls are extremely vulnerable to the scourge of sexual abuse and to HIV infection from rape or prostitution.

South Africa's current social security system is dogged with problems and contradictions. The Child Support Grant reaches only 7 percent of children in need and only covers children up until the age of 7, leaving people aged between 8 and 60 with no recourse to any assistance.

The Care Dependency Grant covers children up until the age of 18 with severe mental or physical disability who require permanent home care. The grant does not cover children who have chronic illnesses, those infected with HIV, or children with AIDS. The Foster Care grant is paid to children legally placed in foster homes. Foster care involves a lengthy court procedure and this grant does not cover child-headed households (who have lost parents to AIDS) or children living with extended families.

Historic structural inequalities still prevent the majority of children in need from accessing these different grants. …

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