‘How am I free if I still go to bed hungry?’

The triple threat of inequality, poverty and unemployment means more than 18 million South Africans depend on social grants to feed their families, try to find work and travel for healthcare.

Ayanda Mtembu, 34, cries when she thinks about the aspirations she and her husband had. Mtembu says that after her husband died of tuberculosis in 2019, she found life difficult. Her husband was the breadwinner of the family of 11. Mtembu now relies on the child support grants she gets for her seven children. 

“My dream is dead. I’m just living for my children’s sake. As long as they have something in their stomachs,” she says. 

“I can’t afford to keep my children fed. When my husband died, my twins were just three months old. He also left behind five other children, his mother who is now 65 and two other brothers. I didn’t have the chance to complete my matric. This makes it hard for me to get a formal or a proper job. I had ambitions growing up, hoping that I’d make something out of my life and finally escape poverty. Unfortunately, I was denied an opportunity because of family instability and poverty. Eventually, I had no place to call home, until I got married and was introduced to a new family.”

Mtembu lives in the Lindelani shack settlement in KwaMashu, Durban. She uses the child support grant money to buy staple foods such as maize meal, red beans, oil and samp. “Most months the entire budget goes to items such as starch-based foods and uniforms. We all eat the same food [including the children]. The money is never enough for baby food or diapers. I feed them soft porridge. If it’s runny, they will drink it … as long as they are full, they will grow,” says Mtembu.

2 February 2021: Ayanda Mtembu with her mother and several of her children. Mtembu often cannot afford to feed everyone at home.

About 30.4 million South Africans live below the poverty line. According to an index on household affordability conducted by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group, the cost of a basic nutritional food basket for a family of seven members increased by R86.24 to R4 941.54 in January, from R4 855.30 in December.

“In January 2021, the child support grant is 25% below the food poverty line [R585 per person per month] and 39% below the average cost to secure a basic nutritious diet for a child,” says the index.

Mtembu is one of more than 18 million South Africans who depend on social grants. A 2019 Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) report shows that about 30.9% of households depend on grants as their main source of income. Child support grants, which were introduced in 1998, have the highest number of beneficiaries, accounting for more than 70% of recipients in 2019.

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According to the report, “In September 2020 the average cost to feed a child a basic nutritious diet per month [was] R695.74. The child support grant of R440 is set below the food poverty line of R585, and further below the average cost of R695.74.”

Mtembu supplements the grant money with the little she makes doing her neighbours’ laundry. “The grants can only last us until the mid-month. After that, we’re just eating pap and the children drink amahewu [a maize-based ferment]. I feel helpless that I have to depend on the money that is meant to help the children but the cost of living is just too high.”

‘How can I be free if I still go to bed hungry?’

A few blocks from Mtembu’s home lives Thoko Majola, 69. Majola lives with her five children and six grandchildren. All 12 of them live in a three-roomed house made of mud. One of Majola’s daughters, Mamsi Ndlovu, 34, opens a pot filled with undercooked leftover rice. 

“The electricity went out while cooking and it hasn’t come back,” Ndlovu explains. All three food cupboards are open and empty. To feed everyone, the family combines her mother’s old age grant and the child support grant money for four children. 

“I can never attest to freedom. I have never seen it. I have never tasted it. My children were born into democracy, into a free country. How am I free if I still go to bed hungry?”

2 February 2021: Thoko Majola, 69, lives with five children and six grandchildren in a three-roomed house in Lindelani shack settlement in KwaMashu.

Majola supports the household with her old age grant. She left her home in Empangeni in 1988 with her husband, who has since died, and they settled in Lindelani. Her husband worked in Bester as a shopkeeper, but was retrenched and struggled to find employment thereafter. To help make ends meet, Majola found domestic work.

“My husband worked at a hardware store earning just enough to put food on the table and because I had no formal education, I was not working, still struggling to find a decent job. At the time, we only had one mud house, which we later extended and coated it with some paint. This is still the same house we are occupying even today,” says Majola. 

“After my husband lost his job, I decided to look for work. I was lucky to find a decent family in Durban. I worked as their housekeeper for about 10 years until they relocated. Finding long-term employment proved difficult and so I was only able to support my family from casual, domestic jobs until I reached my pension age.”

To get through the month, the family buys two 25kg bags of mielie meal, three 10kg bags of rice, 5kg of flour, red beans, samp, 5kg of potatoes and one long bar of green soap to use for bathing, laundry and washing dishes.

2 February 2021: Mamsi Ndlovu, 34, washes clothes in her mother’s home where she lives with 11 other people.

Evashnee Naidu, Black Sash’s KwaZulu-Natal regional manager, explains that grants are the primary source of income for many households because of the “triple threat” of unemployment, poverty and inequality.

“Social grants are actually a lifeline to the poor and vulnerable and not a form of dependence. Individuals and households stretch the grant to feed families, travel for healthcare and also in their attempts to seek for both formal and informal employment. Despite the fact that the grant goes to an individual, research shows that grants support households and families. Many families living on grants live on a month-to-month basis, always struggling to make ends meet, actually forcing many into a debt spiral by taking out loans to sometimes cover basic needs,” says Naidu.

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Thandekile Shabane, 41, lives in Lamontville, another small township south of Durban, with six children. She’s the oldest of two sisters. Both are unemployed. “After my mother died in 2010, life became tough,” says Shabane. 

“I never actually realised how hard she was working for us until she died. She sewed and sold pinafores at the Durban train station, and when I tried to continue with the business in her place, I was chased out and her spot was taken by other women.

“After years of unsuccessful efforts for employment, I’ve reached a state of hopelessness. I often wish I was not alive. What good is my life if I can’t afford to be alive? My children walk long distances to school and I barely get enough to buy them enough school clothes. I want to open a kitchen and sell cooked meals here, but the capital is the biggest barrier at the moment because we still have nights when we go to bed hungry. We ask from the neighbours and wait for the next grant payout,” says Shabane.

3 February 2021: Thandekile Shabane, 41, with her children Mnqobi, 10, Minenhle, 12, and Sgcino, 8, at her home in Lamontville. Shabane says she often goes to bed hungry.

Worsening rate of poverty

Babili Muthi, 43, a community worker in Lamontville, says families who survive on social grants experience hardship, hunger and psychological strain. 

“The situation in these homes is not normal. Many families are struggling to keep alive. People are sleeping in long queues for food parcels and vouchers, which is never enough. The rate of poverty seems to be worsening because most people can’t afford food for 30 days. The Department of Social Development in Lamontville along with the ward councillors are letting the community down, watching them drown in poverty.”

3 February 2021: Thandekile Shabane does housework at her home in Lamontville. She wants to open a kitchen to serve food but cannot raise the capital to start.

Naidu says that Covid-19 has worsened poverty in many households. “The Covid pandemic is also showing us that … we should all be looking at creating a society that can be responsive to the challenges we are living through.

“The pandemic is pushing more people into poverty as we see massive job losses happening around us. The top-ups that were available to grant beneficiaries [from] March to October played a critical role in supporting households [that] were already strained.

“The introduction of the Covid-19 social relief of distress grant also helped ease some of the economic fallout felt by those aged 18 [to] 59, despite the many challenges that applicants experienced in accessing this grant. As people get poorer, this places a greater strain on their psychological wellbeing and their ability to then take care of themselves and their households. 

“We have also seen massive increases in gender-based violence during the hard lockdown and how interpersonal relationships have been affected. While the pandemic continues, the economic recovery of the country is at risk and the impact will always be felt by the poorest of the poor.”

3 February 2021: Lamontville community worker Babili Muthi, 43, feels the Department of Social Development is letting local families down.
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