‘Are we meant to struggle until we die?’

Without the caregiver top-up and the social relief of distress grants to soften Covid-19’s economic blow, impoverished households, especially those headed by women, are floundering.

With the termination of the social relief of distress grant (SRD) and the caregivers’ top-up, hunger is a greater threat than Covid-19 for many families left desperate after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the country will stay on lockdown level four. 

Wave four data from the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) – show that 39% of households ran out of money to buy food in January 2021 and 17% of households experience weekly household hunger.

In an effort to avoid this crisis, the government introduced the R350 grants for unemployed people who do not receive other forms of government assistance. This represented approximately 18 million people. The R500 Covid-19 top-up given to caregivers ended in October 2020. The SRD grant was terminated in April 2021. Ongoing calls from human rights organisations to ensure the grant continues beyond Covid-19 have highlighted the urgent need for government intervention.

1 July 2021: Children at play in the Lamontville temporary settlement. Child grants are often the only form of support a family receives.

According to the PMB Household Affordability Index, without the top-up, social grants buy even less food this year than last. Along with the rise in unemployment and poverty, food prices increased by as much as 9% between February 2020 and February 2021. 

Women are hardest hit by this situation. 

Women and children cast aside

Doreen Nyembe, 56, lives with three of her children and a grandchild in a temporary settlement in Lindelani in Ntuzuma, Durban. She explains her household improved when the child support grant was increased, but life quickly became unbearable when it was terminated. “We’re back to square one. Again we are without food, jobs and our children are starving. Sometimes I just wish I could sleep and never wake up. Living in poverty hurts deep. Each night I have to look my children and grandchildren in the eyes and tell them there’s no food again,” says Nyembe. “The picture is bleak for me and especially my children. What lies ahead for them is still a long road of struggle and poverty.

“Some people ask us why we have families and children when we don’t have anything to offer them, but we had hope in our government. We had hope in the power of our X in the voting stations. We are not poor or unemployed willingly. It is because jobs are scarce and most of all, the government has not prioritised the poor. The young and the old all face the same dire situation. It never ends.”

1 July 2021: Doreen Nyembe, 56, at her home in Lindelani. Life has become extremely difficult without the caregiver grant top-up. Often, her family has to go without food.

Phumla Mlonzi, 38, says she is feeling the effects of defaulting on her antiretroviral treatment. She points to a rash on her arms and chest, which broke out after she stopped taking the pills. She cries while explaining how her health has deteriorated over the past two months while she and her family struggle for food. Mlonzi, who has been living with HIV for 13 years, says she relies on the child support grant.  

“The government really cast us aside as poor women with children,” Mlonzi says. “We deserved better. We should have also been recipients of the R350 grant because the child support grant is only meant for the children. We have been surviving from hand to mouth even before the lockdowns. I left home in the Eastern Cape about 15 years ago to seek employment in Durban. I have been unlucky, with just a few odd jobs here and there. I was diagnosed with HIV after falling pregnant with my son, who is now 13 years old.”

Mlonzi started a fried chips business in her room, but with the termination of the SRD grant and tougher lockdown restrictions, her customers had no extra money and stopped coming. She was forced to close down. “It was a devastating loss because my business was able to support me further. I finally experienced some independence and felt some sense of pride. Now it’s back to handouts and eating pap. The R350 grant was life changing but short lived. My business fell apart because people cannot afford to buy anything. We are all in the same situation,” says Mlonzi.

1 July 2021: Phumla Mlonzi, 38, holds her antiretroviral medication. She has had to choose between food for her family and medication.

Nyembe and Mlonzi are part of a group of 75 families recently accommodated in a temporary settlement in Lamontville after living in a tent for three years. The families’ homes were destroyed in a flood at a nearby settlement behind the Mega City Mall. They were offered temporary tented accommodation near the Tehuis Hostel a few metres away. 

The new settlement has only four mobile toilets, about four communal taps and no electricity. The residents say they each pay R100 a month for unofficial electrical connections.

“We have homes now, but no food. Living in that tent, sharing space with men and women under one tent was dehumanising, but at least the tent owner was able to provide food and even jobs for us. Now we are back next to the river that destroyed our homes and we wonder if this is our fate. Are we meant to struggle until we die? Things are not getting any better,” explains resident Slindile Mdlalose, 37.

Women bear the brunt 

Advocacy group Black Sash has been at the forefront of calling for a basic income grant for more than 20 years, demanding the government introduce a grant of R1 268 for unemployed citizens between 18 and 59 years old.

Lucia Ndongon, 48, says some women used part of the money from the increased child support grant for a stokvel. With the stokvel money she was able to buy herself a bed and cupboards, which were destroyed during the floods. 

“The daily threat of hunger and illness hanging over our heads has worsened. The government dangled the R350 carrot, and then pocketed the rest,” says Ndongon. “A year later, the pandemic is worse than before with more waves and more variants, yet here we are, with nothing in our stomachs, once again uncertain about tomorrow. We spend our days basking in the sun and wondering what to do for our next meals. We are lending each other food, in between drowning in mashonisa [money lenders] debt. The long queues at the post offices which laid bare our poorness were enough to kill my spirits because on so many occasions, I came home empty handed, but when I got the money, as little as it was, it made a difference.”

1 July 2021: Philani Dume and his five-month-old son, Abongwe Dume, in their room at the temporary settlement in Lamontville, south Durban.

Between May and October 2020, caregivers received additional payments on top of the child support grant as part of the disaster relief package to help mitigate the effects of the lockdown. The NIDS-CRAM recorded that child hunger rates increased after the grant top-ups and SDR grants were discontinued.

Black Sash KwaZulu-Natal regional manager Evashnee Naidu says grants must be increased and extended to fight poverty. “The introduction of the SRD grant was a key response to the wide socioeconomic gap that is a harsh reality for millions of South Africans, most of whom bear the brunt being women … The current social assistance framework provides targeted assistance only to children, the elderly and the disabled,” she says. 

“For the first time, poor people felt listened to and acknowledged by the government that had left them destitute for more than 27 years. For once, poor households were able to rely on a predictable source of income, and that lessened some of the heavy burdens associated with poverty. Women have been over-represented in unemployment and job losses, but under-represented in the income support provided. The need for the grant even beyond Covid is a matter of urgency.” 

1 July 2021: Wheelchair user Siyabonga Sondlovu is unable to use the portable toilets.

According to data released by Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey for the first quarter of 2021, KwaZulu-Natal’s unemployment rate in its expanded definition sits at 46.4%. 

Further evidence from NIDS-CRAM exploring the gendered effects of the ongoing lockdown and school closures in South Africa states that unemployed women are effectively being denied financial support if they are also the main caregiver to children. 

“Women accounted for 57% of unemployment in June 2020 and 58% of those lost their jobs over the entire period (February to June). However, only 41% of the Unemployment Insurance Fund and the Temporary Employer/ Employee Relief beneficiaries in June, and 34% of those who had been paid the new Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant in June, were women,” reads the report.

These findings suggest that while Covid-19 leads to negative economic effects in general, woman-headed households disproportionately bear the brunt.

1 July 2021: Doreen Nyembe washes dishes with her grandchildren behind her. Women bear the brunt of the loss of income when grants are terminated.

Naidu adds that a basic income grant is one of the ways to address structural inequality. “The social grant system supports approximately 44% of the country’s multigenerational households, with female-headed households being more reliant on social grant income than male-headed households,” she says. 

“The social grants are inadequate to cover basic food, energy sources and transport, as well as the additional cost of complying with hygiene protocols during the pandemic. A universal income grant will ensure that all living in South Africa have an adequate standard of living.”

On 12 July, the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) announced that because of the riots “they will not be providing any cash delivery services to the Sassa cash pay points until further notice”.

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