Poor people across the country owe a debt to Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini. Entirely by accident, she may have produced a national consensus in support of social grants.
Dlamini presides over perhaps the most disgraceful incident in the past two decades, an exercise in breathtaking contempt for 17-million people who receive grants. There are two possible explanations for the crisis her ministry has created for the grants programme.
Either it did not care, over several years, about making sure grants would be paid after the Constitutional Court overturned its agreement with Cash Paymaster Services – or someone sought to benefit financially from ignoring the order.
Both explanations mean her department sees the people who are entitled to grants not as citizens with rights, but as a means to some other end. Which, of course, makes it all the more ironic that it has given grants an unexpected boost.
Before the grants story became national news, the programme’s only friends were a handful of academics, activist non-governmental organisations and the poor themselves.
Elites here are divided on most issues, but not on prejudices against social grants, which are often derided as hand-outs that create dependency.
The right complains that they place a burden on middle-class and affluent people, who are expected to sustain others who lack their abilities. Many on the left, and within the governing party, see them as an embarrassing admission of defeat by a state that should be running employment programmes rather than giving money to the excluded.
Commentators across the racial and political spectrum join in this assault on grants, sometimes by spreading legends. A former ANC Cabinet minister claimed, without any evidence, that rural people avoided working the fields because they receive grants. A bank economist claimed that tens of thousands of women fell pregnant simply to receive grants: when asked for his information source, he said a friend told him.
Dlamini’s disaster may have changed all that. None of the commentators or politicians who have criticised her, which means everyone outside the ANC’s patronage faction, have questioned the need to pay grants. It could be a long time before it will again be fashionable to denigrate them. If the assault on grants ends, Dlamini’s scandal will be a disguised blessing for the economy as well as the poor. Grants are, with the programme to provide treatment for people living with HIV/Aids, the country’s most important success story in the post-1994 era.
Research shows that, contrary to the urban legends, grants are not only a lifeline for poor people: they also help to kick-start local economies. Few people fritter grants away — they are more likely to use them to meet social needs. In some towns, before the grants programme was rolled out, men stood in line for a handful of mining jobs. After grants arrived, people were more likely to be standing in line at stores or, more importantly, buying and selling on the streets. No wonder that studies have found that grants are the most effective anti-poverty tool introduced since democracy arrived.
One reason grants are effective is that the decisions on how to spend them are made by the recipients rather than policymakers.
One of the greatest blocks to development here is the gap between what many policymakers think poor people need and what the poor know they need. The more people are able to decide for themselves what their priorities are, the more likely is it that the money will not be wasted.
An end to the campaign against grants might also help the debate to focus on the real world. As this column has pointed out, millions of South Africans will remain outside the formal job market for a very long time, whatever we do and so they will require support to enable them to live productive lives.
Finally, the political costs of harming the grants programme may be severe. Research shows, predictably, that people who receive grants value them and would be angered if they did not receive them, so protecting grants is essential to maintaining a semblance of social calm. The fact that no one in the debate has denied that failure to pay grants would be a catastrophe suggests that this reality too is now accepted.
For all these reasons, if Dlamini’s indifference to those who receive grants has made them a source of national pride and their protection a priority across the spectrum, she will have made, despite her best efforts, a real contribution to the campaign against poverty.
Steven Friedman is research professor in the University of Johannesburg’s humanities faculty