Maverick Citizen


Older people in South Africa not receiving the care they deserve, says Human Rights Watch

Older people in South Africa not receiving the care they deserve, says Human Rights Watch
Elderly people queue outside the Mthatha Post Office in the Eastern Cape to collect their old age grant. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

Human Rights Watch says government funding for grants and services to older people is inadequate and not reflective of their needs, and they feel neglected and uncared for.

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch launched a report on older people titled This Government is Failing Me Too: South Africa Compounds Legacy of Apartheid for Older People, which says: “The cumulative impact of racial discrimination under apartheid still affects older people today, and government policies are compounding this legacy.” 

It also says the Department of Social Development (DSD) does not have a clear understanding of the needs of older people and as a result its budget allocation for them is inadequate. 

It also found that older people were living in inaccessible and unsafe housing conditions, with some having been on the state housing list for years, resulting in some living in backyards and hostels which do not afford them dignity and independence.

In a video played at the launch a frail-looking looking elderly Ben Muvenda sits in a wheelchair outside a shack and says to the camera: “This is my house where I’m staying now I’m outside the door. I can’t get inside anymore, I need somebody to support me to get inside the house.” Muvenda, who lives in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, says the communal toilets are very far away and it is particularly difficult for him to get to them at night so he relies on his neighbour for help.

As managers we said to older persons they have to stay at home because there is no food for you.

Florence Limekhaya (79), also a resident of Alexandra, says she has lived in the Helen Joseph hostel since 1980 and raised her children on a single income. She also had to send money back home as her family was not working, and as a result never managed to build up savings and now survives on the old age grant. “If I fall sick I depend on my neighbour. We have an agreement that if I’m not feeling well I will knock on the wall, even if it’s at night, and she will come and she will know that something is wrong.

“Government must put older people in the right place. I am currently staying in a hostel and this is not a right place,” Limekhaya told launch attendees.

According to the Older Persons Act, the DSD has to provide three categories of service centres for older people:

  1. Category A service centres must provide two primary services, lunch and physical activity, with minimal facility and staff requirements;
  2. Category B service centres must provide three or more primary services and have more facility and staff requirements; and
  3. Category C service centres must provide six primary care services and as many secondary services as possible, as well as have even greater staff and facility requirements.

“Yes, the Constitution provides for the rights of older people, but those rights are not taken care of,” deputy chairperson of the Imbumba Association for the Aged, Melumzi Sauka, told those gathered at the launch.” 

“For the last three months [service] centres in the Eastern Cape have not received funding. Can you then say government is there?” Sauka continued.

Sauka said that while some managers at centres for the elderly have on occasion been able to use money “from their own pockets” to fund the centres, most have had to turn away older people seeking care and services because of a lack of funding.

As managers we said to older persons they have to stay at home because there is no food for you.” 

Read more in Daily Maverick: 

Our forgotten people – the elderly’s right to housing is overlooked

Government needs imaginative policies to transform elderly care and ensure dignity for the aged

The centres receive R250 in government funding, Sauka said, which is meant to cover nutrition, administration, recreation and nursing care. It does not cover staffing costs, he added.

Centres were also overcrowded, with more people seeking services than could be accommodated, since the government did not fund the building of structures, which meant these could not be expanded to meet the demand.

“I think we need to organise ourselves and make noise in such a way that other groups make noise. Older persons must come together and make noise for themselves,” Sauka said.

Falling short

Nomathamsanqa Masiko-Mpaka, one of the researchers for the report, said South Africa is not unique when it comes to older people. “We see this across the continent. What makes South Africa stand out is its legislation and implementation of policy… and that older person’s realities are different to what the Constitution guarantees.”

The report’s findings include:

  • Government targets are not based on a scale of needs, but set according to what it can afford, and even then it was not meeting its own targets;
  • Provincial governments are not allocating sufficient funding. In 2022/23 the Western Cape and Gauteng’s budget decreased by 7%, while it rose by 16% in the Eastern Cape;
  • There is lack of funding for NPOs, while a cut in funding has resulted in reduced services;
  • Overly prescriptive conditions set by the government restrict how money can be spent;
  • There is an over-reliance on family members to take care of older people; and
  • The Old Person’s Grant and aid are inadequate because they do not even meet the minimum wage threshold.

Senior researcher at Human Rights Watch Bridget Sleap said the government needs to obtain an accurate number of the country’s older people in need so it can respond effectively. The DSD also needed to review the grant and assess whether it guaranteed older people what they were entitled to according to the law. 

Sleap stressed that more information about the grant age and who is eligible is necessary and needs to be made accessible, since the report found that some people don’t even know about it. DM


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