The politics of social welfare

Why are South African government policies benefiting black mothers still controversial?

Image credit Randy Greve via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

“I imagined that when he [her son] was born, it would solve all the problems in our relationship. That the three of us could start a family together.”

“When I discovered I was with child, I was too far in the pregnancy to go to a public clinic, and I couldn’t afford to go to a private one.”

– Two women in the Eastern Cape

These snapshots are extracted from narratives about pregnancies among young and middle-aged women, collected from research conducted in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Looking back was a painful endeavor, but these women insisted on sharing their stories, even if it meant revisiting memories of betrayal, hardship, guilt, and shame.

The childcare grant is the cornerstone of South Africa’s welfare program, one of the most impressive in sub-Saharan Africa, with different grants currently assisting more than 18 million people. For many of the recipients, grants are the only reliable source of income in an otherwise precarious existence. Grants are also central to the government’s relief measures in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequences of national lockdowns. Existing grants were given a “top-up,” together with the introduction of a new COVID-19 grant to ease the impact on people’s health and wellbeing.

Yet, social welfare programs in South Africa are rarely described as success stories. Across media platforms, particularly digital media, one encounters negative opinions ranging from how the large number of grant recipients is a national embarrassment, to how grants instill a dependency syndrome or, as one NGO official told me in confidence, “it has not only dealt a deathblow to entrepreneurship in the townships, it has also made people lazy.” But the most pervasive is that girls get pregnant so they can claim the child grant.

Yet, if money were the motivation, avoiding pregnancy would be the more rational strategy. Pegged at R410 rand (less than US$40), the child grant barely covers one child’s monthly needs. Having children equals less money for job-hunting, and together with emotional attachment and responsibility, makes it harder to move around in search of employment. The stories about girls leaving their children in the care of their own parents while keeping the grants for themselves, similarly holds little weight in reality―as if young girls nationwide feel no sense of obligation toward their child. With only a few exceptions, in all cases I recorded the grant card stayed with whoever cared for the child

According to the women I spoke to who were relatively young when they had children, pregnancies were not something they had planned for. Many had themselves been raised by single mothers or grandparents and had been told how young motherhood was not something to be desired. While contraception is accessible at the local clinic or in shops, many confessed to having avoided these options out of a fear of being subject to gossip or moral scorn. Sadly, women still have to negotiate their sexuality against a backdrop of patriarchal notions.


Upon discovering the pregnancy, most of the women confessed to feeling ambiguous about whether to terminate it or not. The decision frequently boiled down to whether they had money to pay for the fare to a public clinic (a particular barrier for women living in rural areas), or for paying for a private procedure if the pregnancy was past 13 weeks. Those who decided to continue with the pregnancy tried to see it as the road to a better life; the birth would be the event heralding a bright, harmonious future. More often than not, this ended in disappointment.

There’s no space for such nuances among those who cling to the myth about grants “creating children.” Instead it illustrates how the colonial construction of black sexuality as immoral and socially disruptive prevails. It is a stark reminder of how the debate on decolonization must address perspectives on sexuality and the black body.

This discourse is tied up with wider notions of working-class contempt. Such aggressive attacks on welfare recipients are sadly a global phenomenon. The gendered, racist stereotyping in South Africa finds its equivalent in the trope of the “welfare queen” in the US. In both these cases, grant recipients are depicted as being too lazy to look for a job. These ideas carry political weight, as evidenced by the retractions of welfare policies across the Global North.

We can always hope that the pandemic will be a wake-up call for critics of South Africa’s welfare policies., It certainly has become impossible to deny how large numbers of people  depend on government support to survive. Though the government should be commended for recently introducing the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant, the eligibility requirements—one being that recipients do not receive other grants—restrict many women from claiming it. A friend told me with bitter irony how the government apparently also assumed they used the childcare grant on everything but their children.

During an unprecedented pandemic, many South African households, particularly those headed by women, have depended on welfare grants. The first step towards a serious debate about the childcare grant is to ground it in women’s own lived experiences, not societal prejudices.

Further Reading