South Africa

Analysis: Bedroom politics, marriage and work, social development ANC and DA-style

By Rebecca Davis 18 September 2013

Tuesday morning saw the Department of Social Development present its White Paper on Families, and Tuesday afternoon saw the DA present its Green Paper on Social Protection. As such, Tuesday was a good day to compare the two parties’ approach to social welfare and development. Both have slightly surreal elements: the ANC wants us all to get married immediately and the DA wants to pay kids for finishing matric. Sort of. By REBECCA DAVIS.

When the presidency announced their Green Paper on Families last August, it was greeted with a fair amount of scepticism. It didn’t help that the paper was released directly on the back of President Jacob Zuma’s appearance on People of the South, during which he said that daughters who do not get married are a “problem in society”, and that childrearing is important for women because “they actually give training to a woman, to be a mother”.

Amidst the subsequent criticism of Zuma’s statements, it was suggested that he was being uncharitably misinterpreted and even that a language issue was possibly at play. However, this line seemed undermined by the Presidency’s subsequent remark that “The debate around what the President said on People of the South should go deeper and wider, and hopefully ignite stakeholders to discuss the Family Green Paper in the public domain”.

And indeed, the Green Paper appeared to espouse a vision of family and gender roles that was pretty much bang-on as conservative as that which Zuma’s statements seemed to reflect. Gender activists like Melanie Judge criticized the prescriptiveness of ideas within the paper such as “Marriages are essential for the stability of families and ultimately society’s wellbeing”, pointing out that in many cases in South Africa this bore no resemblance to reality and might be an actively harmful norm to adopt given the high prevalence of domestic violence, for instance.

The Green Paper has grown up and become a White Paper, as is the cycle of life for policy documents, and the Department of Social Development said on Tuesday that the White Paper had been approved by Cabinet in late June. This suggests that the Cabinet may not have given it a terribly thorough reading, since in its current form the paper contains a number of obvious errors when it comes to its tables of figures. (It states, for instance, that in 2007 39.9% of children under 17 were living with only their mothers, and just 2.8% with only their fathers. But by 2010 this situation has magically reversed, so that it appears just 3.3% of children live only with their mothers, and 33.5% with only their fathers.)

Commentators will probably agree that the paper is somewhat improved, though it still carries as one of its central principles the need to affirm the importance of the family. But what is that, exactly? The paper acknowledges that families come in many shapes and sizes. That in addition to the traditional nuclear family – a man married to a woman plus kids they made themselves –we now see very different-looking families: same-sex couples, polygamous families, child-headed families, and so on. But in fact, attempting to encompass all possible permutations renders the very concept of family increasingly nebulous and unhelpful. “The concept of the family is difficult to define,” the paper concedes from the start. Which surely begs the question: why make it the building-block of policy at all, rather than opting for communities, or simply using a basic human rights framework?

The paper makes it abundantly clear that we are not, overall, a nation of nuclear families. “Marriage prevalence has stayed consistently low,” it notes and South Africa has “among the highest” non-marital childbearing rates in the world, at 58% of all births. 2008 figures show that 23.2% of families are “nuclear”, which is, admittedly, the highest for any single family type but far from a majority. In 2010, there were more South African children whose fathers were absent, though still alive (47.4%) than there were children whose fathers were present (36.5%).

Despite the low marriage rates, the paper does still suggest that marriage remains the key to social stability. It cites research to show that co-habitation in place of marriage presents women and their children with “a host of socio-cultural and economic disadvantages”, for instance. It points to “the established body of research evidence showing that families founded upon stable marital unions provide significant economic and psychosocial benefits for men, women and children”, and we assume by that they mean men married to men and women married to women as well.

South Africa: if you like it then you better put a ring on it, nudges the Department of Social Development. But the co-habitation problem and the problem of female-headed households being economically disadvantaged, point to ingrained, structural gender inequalities that can’t be fixed by herding everyone into the World Cup stadiums for Moonie weddings.

So what is to be done? Well, for one thing, more Cosby Show re-runs. The department wants to see more “positive portrayal of the family in the media”. But there are also sensible recommendations, such as encouraging fathers’ involvement in their children’s upbringing by considering the introduction of paternity leave, treating fathers equally in custody decisions and ensuring the more effective enforcement of maintenance payments by absent fathers. The paper also calls for traditional leaders to be trained in gender equality and human rights.

There are different strategies for each government department to implement. The Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities will “target families and not just women, children and people with disabilities”, which presumably marks the department’s official renaming to the Department of Everyone. The Department of Sport and Recreation will encourage “marginalized groups, who are also family members, such as women, people with disabilities, the youth and rural dwellers, to participate in sport”, which makes it sound like they’ll all compete against each other in Paralympic-type events.

It’s easy to mock this stuff from an armchair and, presumably it’s rather difficult to devise meaningful social policy. But there are genuinely problematic passages which remain in the paper, like this one: “There is a general consensus from the general public and academic commentators that the South African society, with specific reference to family life and school life, is experiencing a serious moral breakdown or degeneration, described as the process of declining from a higher to a lower level of morality”. That’s all well and good, and we all know that South Africa’s violent crime problem is horrifying and should prompt introspection as to where we are as a society. But the quote there suggests that there was a recent halcyon period where South Africa’s morality, by contrast, was a shining example to the world.

Assuming we can all agree that we kind of have to scratch the entire Apartheid era from consideration by definition, what are we left with? I have a theory that by this “higher level of morality” period they mean basically the duration covered by the film Invictus, which was about 90 minutes and a bit into extra time.

So what has caused this lightning descent into moral chaos? “A lack of a positive value system in society as a whole”, which is sort of plausible but vague. Oh, and Facebook. No, really, the paper actually says that what’s partially responsible is “social media and technology which often infiltrates family life by, for example, exposing children and youth to pornography and other negative influences”. Let’s leave it at that.

The DA’s Green Paper on Social Protection, by contrast, has barely a word to say about families, although it’s also only 14 pages long, as opposed to 64, so maybe they’re still getting to that bit. When asked, DA shadow development minister, Mike Waters, said the party did “understand the family as a nucleus”, and “do support developing and supporting families”, but he also described the White Paper on Families as “shocking”.

The Green Paper is part of the party’s “Know Your DA” alchemy campaign, where they take all the smack the ANC’s been talking behind their back and spin it into blue gold. If this were a movie, it would be the scene where the romantic underdog stands in the rain in front of his oblivious crush and says, “You idiot, I’ve loved you all along!”

In this case, the DA is gunning hard to counter the apparent perception that if the DA got into power, the first thing they’d do is snatch away all the social grants. The DA never had the position that too many people were on social grants, parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and Waters told journalists in Cape Town on Tuesday. (Perhaps people got the wrong end of the stick when DA MP Patricia Kopane told the National Assembly in February that the number of people on social grants was “a shame on us and to the world”.)

“There are some who have assumed that ours is a libertarian approach to redress,” Mazibuko said. Au contraire. Indeed, the DA actually wants to out-welfare the ANC in some respects. For instance, it proposes giving “transport and communication coupons or subsidies” to those who are unemployed and job-seeking, though Mazibuko was at pains to stress that this does not amount to an unemployment grant. Also, the DA does not foresee the grant system lasting into “perpetuity”, only as long as is necessary.

The bounty continues. The DA wants to phase out the means test for Old Age Pensions, because the party believes the small percentage of the population who are rich enough not to need it wouldn’t apply anyway, and the result will be a significant savings on admin costs. For disabled people, they propose measures like the “gradual phase-out of benefits” rather than abruptly turning off the tap once a certain income has been reached. The DA wants to give “incentives” to poor children, such as “a bonus payment for completing Grade 12 and incentives linked to performance in Grade 12 exams”. We were curious as to what this entailed – cash per A? – but it appears it would be part of a proposed Opportunity Voucher Scheme, which would provide funding to young adults seeking to open a small business or pursue further education.

But of course it’s not just about money, it’s also about jobs. In the DA’s vision, students who have just completed Grade 12 could do voluntary service in the South African Police Service for a small salary, which would no doubt be character-forming. They’d also like to see a Government Internship Programme for young South Africans across all government departments, and for unemployed adults, they want the Expanded Public Works Programme scaled up to employ 2.5-million people by 2025. They also propose the establishment of one-stop career centres, such as exist in the UK, to help unemployed people with their job search.

This is all bold, and will no doubt be popular with many, but it does sound frightfully expensive. When asked for a costing on this all, Mazibuko said shadow finance minister, Tim Harris, would be providing the necessary figures in the near future. Of course, one of the joys of being in opposition is that you get to make big promises. Still, all the talk of incentives and vouchers might well meet a warmer reception than that family stuff. DM

Read more:

  • DA proposes changes to child grants, on IOL

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