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Social Development: Going to hell in a hand basket?


Robyn Wolfson Vorster is a dedicated wordsmith with a background in social sciences, learning and strategic consulting who opted out of corporate life ten years ago to work as a children’s rights activist. As an adoptive mom to a beautiful daughter, she has a special interest in adoption advocacy and the needs of vulnerable children. Runner up in the 2021 Isu Elihle competition for child-focused journalism, and winner of the Mandy Rossouw award for government accountability, she uses her many words to give children a voice, educate around issues affecting them, and motivate for changes in policy. You can find her at For the Voiceless.

Over the course of the Social Grants crisis, the Minister of Social Development, Bathabile Dlamini was accused of incompetence, ulterior motives and most famously of showing “disdain for the country’s most vulnerable”.  All appear apt, but it is disdain for the weak and the poor that has most characterised the recent debacle, and her tenure in leadership.

Even before the ink was dry on the Concourt ruling (which saved the nation’s poor from being pawns in an elaborate political game of chess), the Department of Social Development had already veered into another self-inflicted crisis, one that has proved deadly. An ugly strike by its social workers has exposed years of neglect; poorly allocated or misappropriated funds; and how the department’s “at all costs” pursuit of certain key strategies has resulted in the loss of scarce skills, and the tragic, preventable death of hundreds of children. Chickens are coming home to roost, but as the minister tries evade paying for the Sassa crisis, the burning question is, will anyone hold her accountable for this new one?

On 13 March, National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) members employed by the Department of Social Development went on strike. Citing the breakdown of negotiations with the government (or more particularly, the government ignoring concerns first raised in August 2015), the union demands centre around salaries, workload and the employment of additional social workers.  The strike turned hostile almost immediately, with reports of social workers barricading children into facilities without food, or access to life-saving medication. 

It sent the department scrambling to make contingency plans (plans it should have made before the strike began).  It was the movement of 90 high-risk children from government child and youth care centres to those run by NGOs that led to the death of a six-month-old baby. And yet, despite this tragedy, the minister and the department’s spokesperson have been strangely silent. To quote one journalist at the strike’s inception, “Social Development spokesperson, Lumka Oliphant, was not immediately available for comment after numerous attempts to get hold of her”.

The script is familiar for Social Development: overburdened employees, limited funds, and slowness or unwillingness to respond.  But, it belies hidden intent.  The death of baby Singalakha, along with the displacement, trauma, loss, and risk of trafficking, is inextricably linked to the department’s high risk policies around community-based orphan care, its emphasis on institutions, and “downgrading” the role of non-governmental organisations in social welfare to consolidate power in the hands of the department.    

The seeds of this tragedy were sown more than a decade ago with Social Development’s decision to “repurpose” the foster care system (designed for emergency short-term interventions for up to 50,000 children in crisis, and often imminent danger), to provide poverty alleviation for millions of orphans in the (long-term and relatively safe) care of  “grannies and aunties”. While the need was real, the plan was never feasible. South Africa has more than three-million orphans of whom at least 1.2-million are thought to be cared for by kin, and in need of financial support (a number which is far lower than originally projected, something which should probably have given someone pause).  The department had neither the resources nor the finance to absorb this number of children into the foster care system, and the impact was immediate and devastating. Half a million children were added in just over five years and the system collapsed

Unable to renew 300,000 imminently lapsing foster care orders, the department dawdled and denied the problem, but was eventually forced to approach the High Court for a solution in 2012.  The resulting moratorium on orders expiring prevented a catastrophe, and gave the department two years to sort out the system. It was a deadline the department (predictably) missed.   

The extent of this crisis has been staggering.  Despite the department being more than 3,000 social workers short of the numbers needed to service the children in the system; despite costing the country billions as 500,000 orphans in family care receive an emergency grant more than double the Child Care Grant; despite research indicating that hundreds of children in crisis die every year because the department doesn’t have the resources, or the time to intervene; and despite more than a decade of attempts by child advocacy groups to remedy the situation, Social Development has only now tabled legislative changes to save the foster care system. The indications are that the department chose to pursue its strategy for community-based orphan care, regardless of the human or financial cost.

When confronted with evidence that the Social Development policy had single-handedly brought about the breakdown of the foster care system, a senior Social Development official (rather embarrassedly), called it “unintended consequences”.  It’s fair comment.  It is doubtful that the collapse was the department’s end game.  But its inability to predict the consequences of the policy, and its unwillingness to change the approach long after the effects were felt, looks a lot more like incompetence, or an ulterior motive, or disdain.

For many, the cost has been great.  Thandeka* was only 10 when her mother, grandmother and father died suddenly, within months of each other.  Desperate and alone, her only comfort was an aunt who fought to foster her.  But, almost incomprehensibly, it took the department seven-and-a-half years to produce a foster care order.  The backlog of cases in the foster care system is so huge that she received the order just three months short of her 18th birthday, when she is due to age out of the system. 

Olivia and Jane’s* story is equally shocking.  When a teacher discovered that the girls were being physically and sexually abused by their father, she insisted that a local social worker put them in temporary safe care.  Appallingly, the social worker placed these abused children with a family that did not have their form 30 clearances (mandatory verification that they weren’t on the National Child Protection Register).  When the girls’ extended family protested her negligence, she moved them across the country to live with family, again, without any proof that they were not sexual offenders.

Still, these girls were fortunate. Lerato* was only six months old when she died at the hands of her mother. Tragically, she had been hospitalised for abuse a month before her death, and then returned to her family against the advice of her doctor. There was no formal report about her death so it’s impossible to know why the social worker attempted this high-risk family reunification: perhaps she was overworked, or she was following departmental policy (which favours family reunification over any other form of care), or the lack of an adequate foster care system left her limited options.  Either way, Lerato’s death was foreseeable and preventable. 

She is not the only one.  In a 2015 article about the collapsing foster care system, Stefanie Rohrs from the Children’s Institute made this chilling statement: “using the foster care system for poverty alleviation also comes at a cost for abused and neglected children. Children who are reported due to suspicion of child abuse or neglect do not receive a timely investigation by social workers, which places them at risk of continued abuse and even death. Researchers estimate that nearly half of all child homicides in South Africa are due to child abuse and neglect. In other words: Of the annual 1,000 child homicides, 500 could be preventable if South Africa had a well-functioning child protection system (emphasis added)”.  Five hundred preventable child deaths every year. If proven (which would only be possible if authorities were willing to expose the department), it suggests five times the number of Esidimeni deaths every year. 

But despite the undeniable link between the government’s self-induced lack of resources and child fatalities, the minister seems hell-bent on making the situation worse.  Another of her favoured policies is to centralise welfare tasks within the department, systematically stripping away of the responsibilities that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and non-profit organisations (NPOs) that have traditionally fulfilled this role on its behalf.  The policy (which manifests in subsidy constraints or cuts, controlling and undercutting the fees that NGOs and NPOs can charge, and threats that registrations will be terminated or not renewed), is already resulting in a decline in services, and in places, the worrying risk that experienced providers will be forced to shut their doors. 

Lisa Vetten, a seasoned activist in ending violence towards women, outlines how tiny (and ever-decreasing) government subsidies are affecting care givers who work in rape and domestic violence counselling.  In many NGOs, when subsidies come through at all (NGOs report that they sometimes have to wait long periods for these so-called monthly subsidies to be paid), the amount is so small that the remuneration of caregivers is less than that of South African farm and forestry workers, not to mention the proposed minimum wage.  Vetten reports that when challenged by the director of a non-profit organisation about these meagre subsidies, a department of social development official’s offhand (and I would add astonishing) response, was that the department “is not in the business of enriching others”.

The latest casualty is Child Welfare, which is within a hair’s breadth of closing its doors. While some of its problems appear self-inflicted (not uncommon for service organisations under huge pressure), the loss of their services puts an estimated 2 million children at risk.  It is a loss the department cannot afford. It does not have the skills, experience, resources (bearing in mind its shortage of social workers), or cost efficiencies to replicate these services.  In the aligned field of adoption, the Minister has positioned Social Development to potentially take over the nation’s adoption services.  It could be beneficial, except that the department’s social workers have neither the skills or capacity to take on adoption work, and the department has no funds to hire new social workers for the task.

To compound this potential disaster, the burden of care is growing.  It is an open secret that the department favours institutional care for vulnerable children who have been abandoned or cannot be looked after by kin.  As the department pushes back against adoptions, making the process longer and more difficult, or even bringing it to a virtual standstill, children are spending longer in institutions. Quite apart from the serious impact on the children’s brain development and ability to attach, these policies are increasing the cost of care and placing even more pressure on the NGOs. Temporary Places of Safety have long been beset by the government’s “foot dragging” policy.  The R16 per child per day that they receive from the government (which amounts to about half of the foster care grant—a tiny figure given their responsibility to feed, clothe, house the children and pay the salaries of round-the-clock caregivers), is often paid months late, if at all.  Bigger organisations survive by fundraising, but for small community caregivers, the financial pressure is crushing.  As NGOs close, more and more children will end up in government child and youth care centres.

The Nehawu strike has brought this into sharp relief.  The violent breakdown of care at government facilities takes on new significance when NGO options are no longer as readily available (or able) to help.  In the department’s world of “unintended consequences”, this crisis of resources (and the government strategies that brought us to this point), have both increased the bargaining power of the unions, and the defencelessness of the vulnerable children, elderly and the disabled in care.

What makes the situation more alarming is that the department reputedly has no money.  Over the last two decades, only 10% of the department’s annual budget has been allocated to welfare.  Much of what remains is spent on salaries. The department is also notorious for unauthorised and wasteful expenditure: R108-million spent on travel in 2014/2015, R1.4-billion in unspent funds being returned to treasury in 2015, R1.1-billion of unauthorised expenditure at Sassa in 2015/2016 (prompting the Hawks to investigate 6 cases of fraud and corruption at Sassa and 10 at the department), and more than R3-million spent on futile preparations to take over grant payments in April 2017

The signs of insufficient funds are everywhere. One of the greatest tells is technology, and the department’s troubling inability to keep track of vulnerable children. In a 2016 Carte Blanche interview on child abandonment, the Deputy Director-General for Welfare Services at the department reported that since 2010, 34,500 children had been listed on Part A of the child protection register (the register for tracking abused, neglected and abandoned children). She however confessed that although the department added an average of 6000 children per year, the data was not classified.  When asked how the department could plan specific interventions without any idea why children were in the register, the DDG seemed genuinely bemused, and replied that they “didn’t want to single out any specific category of children”. She did however agree to get IT to work on it.  Nine months later nothing has changed. 

Another (in)famous example is RACAP (the Register of Adoptable Children and Parents), the system designed to track and match adoptable children and parents.  Notwithstanding its strategic importance for facilitating the best interests of adoptable children, the system is still being run off an excel spreadsheet, seven years after its introduction.  Small wonder that the “latest” statistics available from RACAP are from 2013. 

Most concerning though is the lack of funds for recruiting and remunerating the eye-watering 55,000 social workers specified by the NDP, of whom 16,504 are needed to support the Children’s Act alone.

Disturbingly, next financial year is not looking any better.  In March 2017, child protection advocates working with the Western Cape Government to prevent unsafe abandonment, and run workshops to identify and remedy community-specific problems leading to crisis pregnancies, rape and abuse, were informed that: “DSD has currently placed most of its strategic plans for the new financial year on hold due to last minute financial constraints.” Even given the department’s notorious aversion to safe abandonment, cancelling these life-saving interventions is tragic. There is some pathos in the fact that just five days after the notification, a newborn baby was found dead in a dustbin outside a state hospital in the Western Cape, a place where she could have been safely abandoned if our policies were different.

The department has belligerently failed to heed warning signs of its “policy at all costs” tactic. The exorbitant expense of its approach to orphan care, squandered finances and too much pressure on too few resources have resulted in a perfect storm.  Nonetheless, the Minister is unlikely to lose her job (if there was ever any doubt, it ended at midnight on 30th March), the strike will end (despite a departmental spokesperson using the word “indefinitely” in her statement), and proposed changes to the Social Assistance Act should finally introduce a top-up grant for orphans this year.

On paper, everything will go back to “normal”.  But, it is all too little, too late.  Fifteen years of damage will take years to undo, and decoupling orphan care from the foster care system, and converting families onto a smaller grant (even if it comes without the mind-numbing administration), will be a slow and painful process.  In the interim, more lives will be lost. 

Except now we know, and following the Sassa crisis, the country will be watching. We must, because the most vulnerable deserve more than incompetence, agendas and disdain; and Lerato and Singalakha, and the nameless, faceless others, deserve better than being an “unintended consequence”.  If the President will not hold you to account, we will. DM

* Names have been changed to protect their identities


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