Coronavirus: Intergenerational Issues (Part Three)

Family dynamics in multi-generational households during Covid-19

Family dynamics in multi-generational households during Covid-19
Children react as hundreds receive Easter treats from the Groundbreakers community feeding program in Ocean View, Cape Town, South Africa, 13 April 2020. The Petersen family runs the Groundbreakers feeding program from their home in Ocean View which helps many vulnerable families in a community that is severely affected by gangsterism, drugs and crime. EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA

How do multi-generational families adjust when Covid-19 enters a household through illness or economic loss? How are patterns of care and financial support transformed and what conflicts emerge?

  • This is the final instalment of a three-part series. In the second instalment Elena Moore looked at multi-generational households headed by women in employment. The first article examined the possible impact of Covid-19 on old age grant-receiving households. If disease enters a household, it will have different impacts depending on the family, family assets, levels of domestic violence and levels of poverty.


Lester Petersen was a 43-year-old plumber living in a three-generation household with his 17-year-old son (from his first marriage), his second wife Renee, who is a cleaner, and his mother, a 73-year-old retired schoolteacher. His 12-year-old daughter from the first marriage ate her meals in the home but stayed overnight with her mother nearby.

The household pooled resources, Lester and Renee contributing R2,000 to costs and the grandmother minding the young daughter after school. Lester and Renee cooked for themselves and the grandmother for the children, but when money was tight at the end of the month meals were shared.

Lester did a lot of maintenance work on the house.

Household costs were approximately R8,750 per month, including R4,000 for food, R3,600 for rates and electricity, R700 for DStv and R450 for funeral policies. The household had several debts, including R20,000 in overdue rates, and Lester had additional individual monthly costs of R2,000 in maintenance for his children and R1,500 for transport (petrol and public transport).

The pandemic, in its early stages, has brought major changes to the running of this household. Lester and Renee have no income. Lester drew on Unemployment Insurance Fund contributions in March, but these are now depleted. Renee was working as a cleaner with a company for two months but didn’t have a “proper contract” and doesn’t have the airtime or data to dispute this.

Lester is unable to pay maintenance for his children and unable to contribute to the cost of food for the children. The children are now living with their mother because the family can’t afford to feed them.

Lester and Renee are no longer able to contribute their R2,000 to monthly costs and the grandmother is frustrated that she has to do a lot more with much less. There is increasing tension in the household and the couple have had to seek support from others.

Renee, who was helping her own mother with practical tasks such as shopping during the lockdown, is now obtaining basic food supplies and cash from her mother, who is an old age grant recipient.

Lester and Renee are unable to provide for the younger generation or the older generation. The economic impact of the virus in this household has spread to two other low-income households. Requesting support from the older generation doesn’t feel like the right thing to do.

Since the start of the lockdown, my study has shown four main tensions emerging in multi-generational households.

Firstly, there is increased tension over sustaining livelihoods. Uncertainty about pay and job security is leading to a great deal of stress. The precariousness of income and job security among the study sample echoes questions around the quality of employment in the country more broadly, and not just in the time of Covid-19.

Before the lockdown, households categorised as the working poor already relied on debt, loans and extensive family support to manage monthly costs. The cost of living, including rent, rates, electricity, transport and food was unaffordable even in households where there were up to three income earners. This is a combination of many issues but, in my research, I looked specifically at the combination of low earnings and a low ratio of employed members to household size and a high dependency ratio across households (and not just within households).

Secondly, tensions arise due to food cost and the challenge of getting affordable food. The middle generation is trying to explain to members of the younger generation that they need to eat less. All study participants spoke about the rising cost of keeping fed.

There are two reasons for this. People are eating more as they are at home and there are more mouths to feed (lunches are sometimes provided at schools and workplaces). There is also agreement that ticket prices have increased, as reported recently in the news.

The restrictions have also caused challenges in acquiring basic food supplies. With a limited number of taxis running, and at specific times only, participants described how they were struggling to access affordable retail outlets. People have to either shop at expensive shops that are close by or walk longer distances and spend a large part of the day queuing. Many participants spoke about spending half the day getting to a shop, purchasing supplies and returning home.

Finally, families are also experiencing tensions between those going out to work (mainly from the middle generation) and those remaining at home (mainly the older generation).

Participants spoke about fear of the virus and tensions and distrust that are arising between neighbours and even household members. In many instances, the participants who are continuing to work during the crisis have sanitisers freely available at workplaces but do not have them in taxis. Those in low-income jobs have no choice but to continue working. As one participant noted: “On Friday we had a meeting and the boss told us he spoke with his lawyer and he said that we must work and if we don’t work we won’t be paid, or else we must apply for UIF. He was telling us, not asking us to come to work.”

The teachers, nurses and police officers in the study were responsible for many family members in their household and other family members in other households. Without the existence (and expansion) of cash grants, low to middle-income households would have struggled to sustain themselves and their extended families. Since lockdown things have got worse. With less income coming into the household, many participants can’t support family members anymore. People who lost jobs are struggling to pay child maintenance and meet basic needs. Without more state relief at the household level, such as a freeze on rates, rent or other debts owed, South Africans will have to spread their income even more thinly across many households.

I support the call from economists for the state to adopt transformative economic emergency relief to assist all vulnerable households.

South Africa has many different types of households. Whilst grant-receiving households are particularly vulnerable, many other households have become vulnerable. Different types of state economic relief are required to meet the needs of different households. DM/MC

Elena Moore is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town.

This is the final instalment in a three-part series. In the second instalment Elena Moore looked at multi-generational households headed by women in employment. The first article examined the possible impact of Covid-19 on old age grant-receiving households. If disease enters a household, it will have different impacts depending on the family, family assets, levels of domestic violence and levels of poverty.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.