During ethnographic fieldwork in a predominantly Coloured township in the rural Eastern Cape in South Africa, my research assistant and I collected stories of women’s experiences with child maintenance. One of our interviewees, 33-year-old Mary told us: “I never went to court to get my former boyfriend to pay maintenance to our child. Coloured ladies with pride don’t do that. We don’t want to beg for anything.” Mary’s story echoed those of several other women in similar predicaments. Their narratives raise important questions about personhood, gender, and survival strategies in contemporary South Africa.
Official legislation states that both parents share responsibility for providing financial support for the upbringing of their child. When parents cannot agree on a monthly amount or if one party refuses to transfer money to the child’s main caregiver, the matter can be brought before the court and the magistrate will make a decision regarding the size and frequency of the payment. On paper the court is endowed with wide-ranging power to enforce compliance with its rulings, through such means as automatic deductions from salaries or issuing arrest warrants for individuals who repeatedly ignore rulings to pay the stipulated amount. A different image emerges from research on the experience of users of the court, which identifies problems ranging from condescending staff to how the court rarely takes action against non-complainant fathers unless prompted to do so by the women themselves.
According to the women who shared their stories, going to court was a last resort. Their experiences were seldom positive. They recounted the humiliation of retelling intimate betrayal in public to a collection of strangers. Some complained about how hearings were not closed; nosey residents dropped by to listen to the “juicy” details. In a bid to avoid them, women admitted to opting for visiting courts in nearby towns instead of the one in their hometown. For those who lacked the funds to cover the transport, the delicacy of the matter narrowed down to who could be asked for a small loan. Whereas family or friends were likely to add a morality lesson as interest, a skopper (loan shark) ideally asked fewer questions in exchange for draconian interest rates between 30% and 50 %. The humiliation of testifying in court and the debt acquired to cover transport left few with the stamina to go through the same process a second or a third time.
Local township gossip can be quite poisonous. It was not uncommon for the woman to be blamed for the predicament herself; aunties typically gossiped about how “she” should have known better than to go with a “man like that.” A recurring and particularly uncomfortable element of the gossip was the accusation that women who sought maintenance were really doing it to reclaim a lost lover. It was reminiscent of the negative discourse about recipients of the childcare grant, where pregnancy is explained as a strategy for capturing a reluctant lover. The language was itself telling, in colloquial Afrikaans residents spoke of how a man was “gefang” (captured), when he was paying child maintenance. Those women, who time and again found themselves having to actively remind their child’s father to make the payments, claimed it made them feel like beggars.
Additionally, many felt ambiguous about being financially dependent on former partners. Financial dependency in relationships, even within the confines of a marriage, was ambiguous at best. There was near consensus about the importance of having your own income when moving in with a partner. If only the husband brought money into the household it generated a power imbalance; he could threaten to withhold money to wield power. Women’s commitment to having their own income was further fuelled by local gossip, where women who did not perform any income-generating activities tended to be depicted as lazy or incompetent. Younger women were particularly at risk of being accused of trading sexual favors with their partners in exchange for gifts or “pocket money.”
An intriguing revelation was the generational discrepancy. None of the older women who were interviewed had contemplated going to court to settle maintenance disputes, and few had bothered to quarrel with ex-partners who refused to financially support a child. Instead they highlighted how much easier it had been to find work in the 1970s and 1980s compared with today. As one lady in her 70s pointed out, her daughters and granddaughters were more dependent on their male partners compared with her generation.
Violence also figured, although it was rarely explicitly brought-up during interviews. However, according to the local police officer in charge of handling cases of gender-based violence, a substantial number of incidents concerned women being assaulted by their ex-partners following arguments over maintenance.
Contemporary maintenance issues are thus intimately tied to the labor market and cultural notions about womanhood. The latter are not reducible to patriarchal gender tropes either; seeking maintenance often clashes with an ideal of female financial autonomy. One consequence of this is the worrisome number of women in the township who made loans by formal or informal moneylenders to cover expenses.
Instead of throwing struggling women to the sharks, the government should get serious about introducing a Universal Basic Income Grant. Women’s maintenance experience adds a vital dimension to this debate.