Maverick Citizen

Food Justice

HUMAN RIGHTS OP-ED

A R10 grant increase won’t keep older people from going hungry

A R10 grant increase won’t keep older people from going hungry
As food prices rise, many older people, and those they support, are going hungry. (Photo: Leila Dougan / Daily Maverick)

Until the government conducts a full review and increases the Older Persons Grant so older people and their families can live and eat better, older people will not be able to enjoy their guaranteed rights, which only compounds the cumulative impact of apartheid.

‘I would like a life where I can buy butter, jam and tomato sauce.”

It doesn’t seem like too much to ask, but for soft-spoken 80-year-old Themba Magqadaza it’s a distant reality. His monthly R2,010 Older Persons Grant, also known as the Old Age Grant, is the only income for himself, his unemployed 28-year-old-son and his 14-year-old grandson. 

Magqadaza, like many of his generation, spent a little more than half a century of his life under apartheid, which denied him a decent education, decent work and the ability to save for old age. 

As food prices rise, many older people, and those they support, are going hungry, as are others living in marginalised situations across the country. After they pay rent, utilities, burial society and funeral plans, school fees and transport for healthcare, there’s little left for food for one person, let alone a family. 

“The groceries that we buy last a week-and-a-half and for the remainder of the month we only have mielie meal, rice and samp,” Magqadaza said. 

More than 70% of people 60 and older receive social grants, which is the only income for most. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

The Older Persons Grant is an important pillar of South Africa’s social protection system, on which the country spends a relatively large portion of its GDP compared with other upper-middle-income countries. In October, the government increased the grant by R10 per month, to R1,990 for those 60 to 74 and to R2,010 for those 75 and older. However, with annual food inflation at 11.9% in September, this increase cannot keep the Magqadaza family’s hunger at bay. 

Until the government conducts a full review and increases the Older Persons Grant so older people and their families can live and eat better, older people will not be able to enjoy their guaranteed rights, which only compounds the cumulative impact of apartheid. Given the number of people the grant supports – young and old – increasing the grant would reach a large number of people and inject much-needed cash into local economies.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Leaked documents show how government wants to tackle social security and unemployment

Transport and electricity costs are also rising steeply, with transport up by 17.9% in September from the previous year and electricity set to rise by 9.6% in 2022/23. With 60 (65 at most) considered the normal retirement age and the government prioritising the 66.5% youth unemployment, older people find it difficult to continue working if they wish or need to, leaving few options to increase their fixed grant income. 

How they survive

More than 70% of people 60 and older receive social grants, which is the only income for most and is now commonly used to support many generations of unemployed adult children and grandchildren. These older people endure inadequate standards of living, since fixing the house, replacing broken furniture and appliances, or buying new clothes are luxuries for someone living on R1,990 to 2,010 a month.


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For some, a monthly or bimonthly food parcel from their local council or a charitable organisation, or attending a daily lunch club, is how they survive. Every day, Magqadaza visits a service centre run by a non-profit organisation in Dimbaza, which receives a monthly subsidy from the Eastern Cape social development department of just R250 per older person, to cover the costs of food, recreational activities, administration and nursing care. Older people often take the lunch they get at the centre home to share with their families. 

Unfortunately, food parcels and daily lunch clubs are not available, or enough, for every older person. Some are forced to choose between going hungry or spiralling into debt that is hard to escape. Some borrow from family, friends or neighbours or get credit at the local spaza. Others resort to loan sharks with exorbitant interest rates. 

Magqadaza said that because of the food shortages every month he has to borrow from a loan shark at 40%.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Old age grants hold together many a household

South Africa’s constitutional, regional and international human rights obligations guarantee older people social security and an adequate standard of living, which should mean they have access to sufficient and nutritious food. 

To meet these human rights obligations, the government should promptly reassess the Older Persons Grant to account for inflation so they can afford basic necessities as prices continue to rise. 

The Older Persons Grant is an important pillar of South Africa’s social protection system. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu)

But more will be needed to meet the needs of the older people and the family members who depend on them. The government should begin a comprehensive review of the system. 

When I ask Magqadaza about his health, he tells me: “Even as I sit here, my body is sore, my shoulders. I know it’s stress.” And so, every month, he pays R450 he can’t afford to a doctor to treat his stress which stems in part from the fact that he is not guaranteed enough money to live with dignity and enjoy the little things in life: butter, jam and tomato sauce. DM/MC

Bridget Sleap is the Senior Researcher, Rights of Older People at Human Rights Watch. She is doing research for a comprehensive report on older people’s living conditions in South Africa.

 

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