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From the Inside: A toe in the Berg River water

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

When it comes to important policy shifts, most people look to national government to take the lead. This needn’t be the case.

Our Constitution gives much more scope to provincial and local government to initiate and implement innovative policy than most of us think. That is why I took such an interest in a policy initiative by the Bergrivier municipality, with its seat at the picturesque West Coast town of Piketberg.

Word reached me that this pioneering municipality was planning to introduce incentives and penalties to deal with the crisis of its school drop-out rate – a difficult nut to crack in rural municipalities.

Bergrivier Mayor Evert Manuel and Municipal Manager Hanlie Linde were spurred to action by the Western Cape government’s Farmworker Household Census, conducted by the Provincial Department of Agriculture, which concluded that a shockingly low 26.7% of children of farmworkers in the Bergrivier area were actually attending school. And although the situation in the municipality’s nine towns and villages looks better, the drop-out rate is still worryingly high, at an average of 40%.

Despite the fact that education is not a local government mandate, the municipality concluded they had to do something to improve the situation.

The first step was to understand the root causes of the problem.

Unlike most other provinces, the Western Cape provides school transport for learners who live five kilometres or further from their nearest school (where public transport is not available).

Some learners, who live within the five kilometre radius, still find the distance a challenge, but this affects a relatively small percentage and cannot explain the extent of school drop-outs. More often, children arrive at the pick-up point after the bus has left (it has to keep a tight schedule). And some learners, who actually catch the bus, prefer to hang around in the streets of town all day, rather than go to school.

Another contributing factor is that hostels on school premises in towns close every second weekend. Rather than face the challenge of bringing their children back home on a fortnightly basis, some parents prefer to keep them out of school entirely. And for some families, life it is simply easier without the hassle of going to school. The new generation repeats the pattern of the previous one.

So Bergrivier Council decided to pull the lever within its control. This is the indigent grant, in terms of which poor households get free basic services to the value of over R500 each month. The council asked itself how it could leverage these transfers to reduce the school drop-out rate.

Municipal Manager Linde had heard of the success of conditional grants in resolving certain social problems during a trip to Uganda in 2010, when she learnt of the combination of policies that enabled that country to bring down a soaring HIV-infection rate to about 3%. One of the contributing factors was conditional government grants. In order to qualify for any form of state support, an applicant had to prove that they had been tested for HIV and received counselling if required. That, apparently, had a major impact on behaviour change.

The Bergrivier council discussed the possibility of applying the same approach to their indigent grants, for which recipients have to re-apply each year, on the anniversary of their original application. The council resolved that, apart from proof of indigency, applicants would be required to submit verified copies of their children’s school reports. In order to prevent fraud, the municipality set up a feedback loop with ward committees and schools in the municipality.

There was, of course, the risk of a backlash. In South Africa we tend to regard our rights as absolute, and unattached to personal responsibilities. So there was a likelihood that this new approach would elicit strong resistance. The municipality advertised the proposal in March and held a series of public meetings, where they received a generally positive response, before formally adopting the proposal in May. Implementation started on 1 July.

There is one major problem, however. The municipality’s leverage does not extend to children living on farms, where the drop-out problem is greatest. The reason is that, in terms of current national policy, municipalities do not provide individualised household services to farms. This means that individual farm families do not receive the indigent grant, but rely on services provided by the farm owner.

This also means that the municipality cannot influence school attendance through making indigent grants conditional.

Despite this challenge, the municipality nevertheless decided to introduce the “school report” requirement for all eligible grant recipients, in order to assess the impact on school attendance of children whose families live in Bergrivier’s towns and villages.

We will monitor the implementation and outcome very closely. If this policy initiative succeeds, a range of other interventions through conditional grants may become feasible.

The first challenge would be extending this incentive to families living on farms. This could happen through enabling individual farm families to receive grants for municipal services. If, however, providing separate services to individual households on farms proves too complex, the requirement of school attendance could be attached to other grants received by farmworkers.

Because these grants are paid by the national government, attaching a condition to them would require a major national policy shift. If Bergrivier’s pilot project has a positive impact on the school drop-out rate, we will certainly seek to extend its reach, by approaching national government and the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) to conduct a pilot project that attaches conditions to other social grants paid to Bergrivier residents.

This approach has already been implemented in many countries worldwide and its successes have outweighed failures. In South Africa it would, undoubtedly, prove highly controversial.

But if our top policy objective is to include growing numbers of people, particularly young people, productively in a growing economy, we need to consider conditional grants very seriously.

The purpose of a grant is to meet indigent people’s basic needs, so that they can devote their efforts to improving their lives, rather than merely surviving. So why not incentivise behaviour that enables them to use their opportunities – like going to school, or practising safe sex, or preventing teenage pregnancy, or abstaining from alcohol during pregnancy, or paying child maintenance?

The possibilities and permutations of conditional grants are vast, and some are easier to implement (and possibly less controversial) than others. But there is little doubt that unless we link rights to responsibilities in concrete ways, the cycle of poverty will prove unbreakable.

At the very least, South Africans need to engage this debate.

Our country has a notoriously poor record when it comes to effecting the behaviour change required to deal with some of our most intractable social crises.

Despite the most extensive HIV treatment regimen in the world, we also have the world’s highest ongoing infection rate. This cannot be described as a successful policy outcome. On the contrary, if this trajectory continues, the cost of treatment will soon be unsustainable. It already constitutes a huge opportunity cost, both in human and financial terms, for a developing country.

Another area of dismal policy failure is preventing women binge-drinking during pregnancy. Our research shows that almost all women know the risks to the foetus of drinking during pregnancy. Yet we still have the highest foetal alcohol syndrome rate in the world, despite millions pumped into prevention programmes.

Why is this? I am sure there is no simple answer, but a contributory factor is that South Africans tend to object vehemently to any form of state intervention in their personal choices, while demanding that the state take responsibility for the consequences of these choices. That means, as a country, we have to run faster and faster to stay in exactly the same place.

If we want to make progress, we have to spread responsibilities to where key choices must be exercised – and use government policies to encourage choices that lead to social progress.

It is fraught, complex and controversial. But the Bergrivier municipality has put a toe in the water. Every sphere of government should be observing the outcome with interest. DM


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