The passing of the former Minister of Social Development, Dr Zola Skweyiya, three days before his birthday on 11 April, has robbed the country of one of its most respected sons.
The accomplished freedom fighter and veteran of the Struggle for freedom has left behind a rich legacy of selfless dedication to public service and of building a caring society and a better life for the poor.
Dr Skweyiya is highly regarded for his role as the head of the ANC’s legal and constitutional affairs department, which was key in the drafting of the Constitution and the negotiations towards a free and democratic South Africa.
He also made his mark in the transformation of the apartheid civil service into a new public service for a free, democratic South Africa, as Minister of Public Service and Administration.
However, it is in the development of the country’s social security system that he has left an indelible mark. Dr Skweyiya is effectively the architect of the country’s popular social security system, which has become one of the most effective poverty alleviation mechanisms in the republic.
He worked hard to build the Department of Social Development into a formidable social policy-making engine, and also set out to produce the social assistance system which is now regarded as one of the most important policy developments in the country since the dawn of freedom, given its contribution in alleviating poverty.
The provision of social security is a Constitutional Right. Section 27 of the Constitution states:
“Everyone has the right to have access to social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their families, appropriate social assistance.”
Dr Skweyiya ensured the enjoyment of this constitutional right by millions of South Africans, especially orphans and vulnerable children. The existence of 17 million social grants recipients to date is due to the hard work of Skweyiya who worked tirelessly and ensured a firm foundation. He travelled all over the country, organising massive community meetings, registering people for pensions, the child support grant, foster care grant, disability grant, grant-in-aid and the social relief of distress, otherwise known as food parcels.
The Child Support Grant (CSG) is his principal legacy. He used to remind his officials that no child should go to bed hungry, and many campaigns were undertaken to increase the uptake of the CSG. To date, 11 million of the 17 million social grants beneficiaries are recipients of the CSG.
As the CSG uptake increased, so did the criticisms. Many sceptics said the grants in general encourage dependency and that the CSG in particular encouraged teenage pregnancies or that young women used the money to pay for personal expenses such as manicures or hairdos.
Dr Skweyiya resented the rumours as he believed in evidence-based policy-making. The department commissioned research on the CSG which confirmed that many mothers used the grant for children’s needs such as school fees or uniforms, and that the rumours were unfounded. Many women are known to use the CSG money to look for work as well.
Dr Skweyiya said in November 2007:
“The Child Support Grant children who received the Child Support Grant over long periods of time showed an improvement in their nutritional status and a reduction in stunted growth and that returns on the Child Support Grant were between 165% and 265%. The school enrolment rate is reported to be 98% and the primary school completion rate 96%.”
In 2017 the department celebrated graduates who had become doctors and other professionals, who had been recipients of the CSG. That is the legacy of Dr Skweyiya.
In supporting children, Dr Skweyiya prioritised the Early Childhood Development programme, and more and more centres were subsidised by government. To date, more than 800,000 children receive daily ECD subsidies from government, thanks to the foundation laid by Dr Skweyiya.
Dr Skweyiya also campaigned hard to enrol more senior citizens to obtain the old age grant or pension because he knew of its value in many households. He was aware that the pension grant supported more than just the pensioner. The pension grant supports the unemployed and also grandchildren in the household.
Another key achievement for Skweyiya was the equalisation of the old age grant. Men used to receive the grant at the age of 65 and women at the age of 60. It troubled him that many men from poor backgrounds had to wait that long to receive the state pension.
The beneficiaries of social grants and other welfare services appreciated his hard work and caring nature. At Mbizana, Mount Ayliff and other areas, Skweyiya was so popular that mothers receiving the CSG used to sing a special song when he arrived in their communities, “niyambona uyasebenza, wondla abantabami” (Do you see him, he is working hard, he feeds my children”. That is the essence of Dr Zola Skweyiya.
Dr Skweyiya was always independent-minded. While there are periodic tensions between government and non-governmental organisations, such tensions never existed at the Department of Social Development. He believed in the power of working with other stakeholders. NGOs working in the field of with children, women, older persons, persons with disabilities worked closely with the department.
Beyond social security, Dr Skweyiya prioritised social welfare programmes, especially the protection of children. The Children’s Act took 10 years to finalise, but it is comprehensive in its provision of protection for children, thanks to Dr Skweyiya.
His most popular campaign each year was Child Protection Week in May, and he used it effectively to promote the rights of children. Grandparents Day on the first Sunday of October was always celebrated in style when he was Minister of Social Development, with parties bringing together senior citizens from all racial groups.
At the height of the challenges that families faced due to deaths related to HIV and Aids, the home-based care programme of the Department of Social Development had a great impact in alleviating the suffering of many families. That was part of Dr Skweyiya’s caring nature and ensuring that the department enhanced programmes that promoted a caring society.
Troubled by problems of corruption and maladministration in the social grants payments system, Dr Skweyiya established the South African Social Security Agency. It was launched on 1 April 2006.
A lot of progress has been made by government since his tenure such as the shorter approval period for social grants applications. The turnaround time for approval of grants has improved from three months to at least 14 days and there is even same-day approval in some offices, using one system serving all people regardless of background, creed and race. The CSG has also been extended to their 18th birthday, meaning children of the poor can obtain the grant until they reach Grade 12 or finish school.
His greatest wish was a comprehensive social security system for South Africans, going beyond just social grants only but also incorporating the Unemployment Insurance Fund, Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act, the Road Accident Fund, Pension and Provident Funds, Retirement Annuities and Group Life Schemes. Government and social partners are still pondering this mammoth task.
For Dr Skweyiya, building a more caring society and making South Africa a better place to live in for the poor and the marginalised was not just a slogan. He lived this mantra and every working day he searched for ways of improving the lives of those less fortunate.
South Africa is poorer for losing this renowned social policy guru, legal eagle and gentle giant who loved his country and dedicated his adult life to building a better South Africa.
Rest in Peace, Dr Skweyiya. DM
Lakela Kaunda is the former spokesperson for Dr Zola Skweyiya and former head of communication of the Department of Social Development
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