Bloomberg Africa evokes Reagan’s “welfare queen” stereotype for poor South Africans

Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was in South Africa this month to launch the Bloomberg Media Initiative, a $10-million project to build capacity in business and financial journalism across the continent (starting first in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa—which is a questionable choice of countries). But he should probably also invest some of his billions closer to home, too; at Bloomberg Africa, the Africa-focused overlay of his New York-based Bloomberg News agency.

In an article published Tuesday, the agency elided details and invoked shades of Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” stereotype to argue that South Africa has a welfare addiction.

The article transports the reader to the economically depressed town of Brandvlei, in the Northern Cape, South Africa’s most sparsely populated region, to bring us the image of a 72-year-old coloured grandmother, Eva Matthys, instructing her 13-year-old granddaughter on how to cook ground lamb for the family of 12’s supper that night. (That’s Ms Matthys sitting in front of the window  in the image above that accompanied the story.) But, wait for it, this is scandalous, because the family didn’t dance for their supper, which the writer appears galled to realise includes side dishes as ornate and lavish as macaroni and Bolognese sauce.

This was paid for by South African taxpayers, Bloomberg Africa notes in wide-eyed disbelief.

“Welfare dependency, a problem across the developed world, has reached a danger level in South Africa. More people receive aid than have jobs, and the ratio has been worsening for five years,” it says, before going downhill from there, repeating words like “dependency”, “welfare addition”, and the irrelevant statistic that South Africa spends more than Mexico and South Korea on its social program as a buttress against the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s statistic that this spending is nonetheless less than the developed-world average.

In short, the article uses a poor family as a foil to write an unconscionable hatchet job on the country’s social grants program. The things it gets wrong are numerous, the most significant of which are:

1. “Only one of the 12 [members of the Matthys family] works”: Uh, yes, but only three are of working age. Four of the family members are children, two more are barely 17 (and should be in school), and the remaining two adults are 72 and 78, well into retirement age.

2. The $400 figure in the headline and body copy is approximately $1.50 per day for each of the nine members of the family receiving the grants, barely above the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.25 per day and below the $2 per day the South African government uses. Despite Bloomberg Africa’s best attempt to convince us otherwise, this family is not living large off the taxpayer’s buck.

3. The article repeats that the unemployed working-age members of the family (including school-aged kids) would look for work if they weren’t earning social grants, as though the grants are the cause of their unemployment. In South Africa, unemployment is structural and is not from indolence or the lack of trying on the part of the unemployed.

17-year-old Christoline — Eva’s granddaughter, who dropped out of high school when she gave birth to a daughter at 16 — suggests that she’d travel the 370 miles to Cape Town to look for work if she weren’t receiving a grant, because Brandvlei has no jobs prospects and a 90% unemployment rate.

But don’t mistake the desperate situation taking away the social grants would create for her as just the thing she, and her family, need to get jobs. If you know and understand the country’s history of racist land dispossessions and forced removals, and the destructive social effects of the migratory labor system on the communities supplying workers to the country’s economic centres like Cape Town and Johannesburg, you’ll know that it is a good and just thing that the social grants are stopping Christoline from leaving behind her one-year-old baby, family support network, and the possibility of returning to school in order to chase the faint promise of a job hundreds of miles away. It’s precisely this reason that the Human Sciences Research Council recently proposed that countries in sub-Saharan Africa should expand their social grants program to include a grant that aims to keep families together, even if they do decide to relocate to more economically prosperous areas.

But for some reason, this zombie myth about social grants causing unemployment will not die. This despite studies that showing that there is no evidence of a dependency culture, and micro-economic evidence showing that social grants provide recipients with the means to look for jobs and that little evidence exists that they discourage job seeking.

Like Reagan’s welfare queen, I suspect the persistence of this myth has a lot to do with racial prejudice.

4. Social grants fuel alcohol abuse: Like the myth linking teenage pregnancies and child support grants and the unsubstantiated claim that women in the Eastern Cape were drinking heavily while pregnant to claim disability grants for the child who’d be born disabled, an immortal trope exists that social grants fuel alcohol abuse. The Bloomberg article quotes a community worker who points to a group of young men stumbling toward a liquor store. But the drinking age in South Africa is 18, which is also the last year a teenager qualifies for the child support grant. That should have been the first clue for Bloomberg that this was dangerous and, at best, circumstantial anecdote, especially when compared to the evidence of the good social grants do for teens in communities like Brandvlei. And had Bloomberg Africa done a little more work, they would have known that the vast majority of social grants are spent on food and education, not alcohol.

5. Lamb for 12 paid for by South African taxpayers: The tax system in South Africa is progressive in some ways and regressive in others. While only working people earning above a certain threshold pay tax calculated on rates that escalate with income, sales tax is a flat 14% paid by everybody on most (basic food stuff and other items are zero rated) household goods. Even though it has a disproportionate effect on their ability to provide for themselves, the Matthys family pays sales tax on items that are not zero-rated. They, too, are taxpayers.

As a friend commented on my Facebook wall, “I never thought the day would come that I’d read an article that lambasts a poor family for eating a nice family meal — but I guess that day is here.”

All this said, an equal amount of scrutiny over this article should be directed to the South African Institute of Race Relations, which has been issuing policy briefs and media statements for a few years now to sound the warning that social grants program is too extensive and using that to qualify the positive effects social grants have had on the lives of recipients. The institute’s Lerato Moloi is quoted in the Bloomberg article doing just that.

For the thoughtful, the research on the impacts of social grants does not raise sustainability as the program’s primary, or even secondary, conundrum; the research points to the likelihood that the grants are barely enough to keep millions of South Africans out of abject poverty, but not enough to allow them the freedom to do much else beyond stay alive.

* Written with contributions from Michelle Solomon (@mishsolomon).



T.O. Molefe

T.O.Molefe is an essayist based in Cape Town, South Africa. His book 'For Blacks Only and Other Ways Of Being Black' will soon come.

  1. Why is Bloomberg’s choice of the three countries “questionable”? What has the donation, from the Bloomberg Foundation, got to do with this anyway.

    1. Hi Reg,

      That was a parenthetical aside. Click the link over that text, read Anton Harber’s article, which I think asks valid questions while giving due recognition to the worth of the initiative, and challenge him if you disagree.


  2. Your argument isn’t with Bloomberg. Its with the interviewed South Africans. While I agree that the social grants are important and should be continued, denying the existence of the problems they create damages your credibility. How much easier is it to vent at the foreign boogie bloomberg man than to engage with those in your own South African community with whom you disagree.

    Ms Matthys said:

    “That [the social grants] is why they make so many children, because they get money from the state,” she said. “The state should give money to those who can appreciate it. But what does the government know about what life is like?”

    Is she wrong? If so have the balls to argue with her rather than the easy and distant “neo-liberal” bloomberg soft target.

    Anita Farmer, the local social worker, said:

    “A whole culture of ‘I have to receive, I am dependent’ has been created,”

    Is she wrong? If so, again have the balls to address her.

    Christolene, the local communty worker said:

    “This is what it looks like [drunk] when they get paid [the social grants]. And then later they come and beg [for more government money] at our office again.”

    Is she wrong? If so, say it, and speak to her. Why waste your time railing against bloomberg? As if it mattered.

    Sure it feels good, but so do most useless activities.

    1. People have been making children before social grants, and will continue to do so even without the social grants; they’re actually quite effortless to make, children are. The causal link between grants and babies is near impossible to prove. So, yes, Ms Matthys is mistaken; so too is Ms Farmer and Ms Markus (whose claim about alcoholism I’ve responded to). If you click on and read the links to the studies I’ve provided, you’ll realise this: The plural of anecdote is not data.

      And Bloomberg isn’t a soft target. They’re a multi-million dollar news agency backed by a multi-billionaire. The agency has reach and influence, and needs to be held accountable for the news it produces and the narratives it enforces.

      1. I’m glad to hear that you believe that the interviewed South African are wrong. Why didn’t this show up in the original post? Instead you focused all your criticism on Bloomberg. It is sad who you choose to hold “accountable” and who you chose to ignore. People, all people, have agency. By ignoring them, you ignore that, and that is a shame.

  3. All emotions aside. There are some unsustainable deep-rooted issues with the social grant programme. While this much needed programme serves children – the vulnerable of the most vulnerable – it has also been exploited as an end to income and not the means to uplifting one out of poverty. This issue is exarcebated by high unemployment and other social ill that included alcoholism. The article only brings up an issue that’s on the minds of lots of South Africans but is not publicly debated. In short it is unsustainable to have a higher of the citizenry on welfare than employed. The state will be best served with effective and measurable programmes than can equip people with skill to be gainfully employable. Gainfully employed citizens pay taxes and that’s how you increase state coffers to address other social issues. That’s a better option to spend the limited state resources.

    1. As I mention in the final paragraph, the sustainability of the grants is probably the least interesting question posed by the studies; not just the least intellectually interesting, but also the least interesting in terms of the skills-development imperative you mention, as well as the broader principles of social justice and equality on which this country is founded. The social grants program can be a way to allow people to gain the skills needed, but, right now, it’s not doing enough of that because the program hasn’t been as expansive and targeted as it should be.

      I am all for public debate, but I’d prefer it to be informed debate, because it’s pointless otherwise. Please, read the studies in the links I’ve provided and broaden the conversation beyond sustainability.

      You should also read chapter two of the Financial and Fiscal Commission’s submission to this year’s budget (link below). The commission ran an economic modelling simulation on the child support grant to determine its multiplier effect on the economy; it found a positive link between the grant and the possibility of participating in the labor force. For that reason, the commission recommended that National Treasury increase the value of the grant by 20%.

      The commission also warned: “The great danger confronting South Africa today is that longer-term fiscal imperatives could be used as reasons to limit necessary future growth in spending on the child support grant. At the economy-wide level, the results from this study challenge the often-held view that these grants are squandered on non-productive consumption. The chapter shows in no uncertain terms that even these modest reforms have a significant impact on children and households.”

  4. Here, here, it has been shown through excellent studies that giving money directly to poor families is the best form of aid. It is also logical that the best investment a country can make is in the welfare of its people. It should trouble any true citizen greatly that the media debate has been around the existence of the social grant rather than why it doesn’t amount to a greater proportion of revenue. While so much state revenue is squandered on white elephants, at least we know that the vast majority of this spending is going to nutrition, education and health.

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