During the course of the public investigative hearings (PIH) into the status of shelters in South Africa, the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) identified that deeply embedded systemic and structural fissures in the state are undermining the ability of its departments to assist shelters and ultimately women and children who are victims of abuse.
“The CGE is not saying that shelters are in shambles. It is the structural and systemic management of shelters by the state that is in shambles,” said Jennifer Smout, one of the commissioners who led the hearings that took place between 2 and 6 December.
Various government departments were called to appear at the PIH to present reports detailing the steps they have taken to improve and assist shelters to become better equipped for survivors of violence.
At the forefront of the hearings was the national Department of Social Development (DSD) as the department supposedly leading this marathon.
“It was clear from [day one] that there is a major difference between what the national DSD thinks is going on and what the provincial DSDs are reporting to us – both in terms of the services they are providing and in terms of budget allocations,” said Smout.
The CGE heard submissions from the heads (HODs) of almost all nine provinces, with the exception of the North West and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), who were sent home – the North West for being poorly prepared to present and KZN for arriving without an authorised official.
Absent authorisation was another theme for the week when the CGE was also forced to bar the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure and the Department of Labour from presenting, as neither department had an official mandate to report.
The director-general, as the accounting officer of each department, is asked to present before the CGE. If they cannot participate, they may delegate to another official – in writing. KZN, Public Works and Labour’s failure to do this translates into a wasted opportunity for critical engagement, wasted state resources and a simple example of the systemic fault lines destabilising the state.
“When they do come, [some HODs] don’t even know what’s going on: like they’ve never even heard about shelters,” said Commissioner Dibeela Mothupi.
Each department was responding to questions submitted to them by the CGE regarding their involvement in assisting shelters. One of the major findings was that there is poor financial management of the allocation of funds for shelters, with some departments lacking any form of costing model to regulate this.
“Often, [funding] is not transparent and it varies between shelters and between one province and the next. There is a lack of standardisation that is going to cause serious challenges for services for shelters,” said Smout.
She explained that despite this, SA requires these services and many of the shelters are doing a very good job, often with very little budget:
“The failing that we are seeing is from the government side – not the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are providing the shelters.”
Mothupi said one of the main reasons that shelters are failing is because of issues that stem from the provincial DSDs.
Claudia Lopez, research and publications manager of the Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBF), called the hearings “momentous” because the CGE “actually has teeth to hold government accountable”.
The HBF provided the CGE with information on the state of shelters in preparation for the hearings. “So, it was astounding for us to hear the Gauteng officer refer to R90 a day [for a survivor] when we know that is not the case,” she said.
And when the department was confronted about this, the panel admitted that they were unsure of the correct amount.
“Most of the provinces do not have a costing model, so I don’t know where they are getting these figures from. It’s like a thumb-sucking exercise,” Lopez said.
Ultimately, explained Smout, it is for the national Department of Social Development to get its act together and take leadership of its own departments.
“We understand that budgets are disbursed provincially, by the national DSD; it is responsible for what the programmes and strategic plans must say. And then this needs to be filtered down to the provinces.”
The CGE hearings are particularly important in light of the surge of gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa and the recent commitments that the president has made towards the National Strategic Plan (NSP) and fighting GBV.
The NSP describes how South Africa will respond to the treatment and prevention of HIV, tuberculosis, and sexually transmitted infections between 2017 and 2022.
However, it is evident that departments are not doing enough.
Commissioner Tlaleng Mofokeng explained:
“Nice words and plans and ‘we will do this’ and ‘we commit’, are useless at this stage.
“These things are not new. No one is giving an update or even referring to their own research and there is no confidence that this exercise will lead to any results. The president has announced an emergency plan; surely we should be seeing how you responded to that?”
While she was speaking to the panel of the Department of Health (DOH) officials, her comments were applicable to all of the departments.
“We are talking about a majority of people who cannot afford private care,” she said. “So, when the DOH fails – on whatever level, national, provincial, district or municipal – that in itself is a form of GBV. It is just that most of the people you fail don’t even know their rights.”
Mofokeng explained that unless we seriously reconsider an inclusive approach to the importance of survivors of abuse and their need for a safe space, “the departments will continue to leave people behind”.
“There is this obsession with reviewing policy, [but] even if you did not review the policy we have right now and just committed to doing the very best with what you have, you would be very far.”
The hearings did result in all the departments committing to increasing their efforts to provide improved services to shelters.
Lopez said in light of the need for a “coordinated and collaborative response,” she was pleased that so many departments had participated in the hearings.
“It can’t all fall on the shoulders of the DSD – they are a big department with a lot of responsibility when it comes to social welfare for the country. We need to collaborate and the political will to do that.”
As to what happens next, following each report and question and answer session, the CGE compiled a list of observations and recommendations for the department to consider and implement. The status and impact of these measures will be scrutinised at the next PIH.
As the proceedings drew to a close, the National Shelter Movement, an organisation that describes itself as “the united voice on sheltering of abused women and children”, asked to express its gratitude to the panel of commissioners.
“As far as the shelters are concerned, we believe that this is the way to go in making sure that we are able to serve the women and children of the country in a much more effective way.” DM