University of South Africa: Children, social assistance and food security in South Africa

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Dr Wanga Zembe-Mkabile, Research Fellow at the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), National Research Foundation (NRF), South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) and the Chair in Social Policy in the College of Graduate Studies, presented research about how households in South Africa were coping with food security while receiving child support grants.

Having conducted research across the Western Cape, Dr Zembe-Mkabile reported interesting yet concerning findings on similar patterns within these areas. This study commenced before the Covid-19 pandemic as part of the longitudinal birth cohort study that Zembe-Mkabile conducted over four years (2016–2020). When the pandemic struck in 2020, Zembe-Mkabile went back to a subset of the households to assess the status quo regarding food security and to document the impact of Covid-19 while being mindful that child welfare was of a substandard level even before the onset of the pandemic. Zembe-Mkabile’s findings indicated that there was already an increase in poverty, unemployment and food prices, which resulted in high levels of food insecurity, child malnutrition and hunger. In the first 20 years of democracy, South Africa experienced a decline in food insecurity, child hunger and poverty due to the awarding of social grants (especially old-age pensions and child support grants). Yet, steady increases have been reported from 2015 in food insecurity, child hunger and poverty. According to the study, most of the child support grant money was spent on the food of poor dietary quality, which was also low in nutritional value and quantity, thus not meeting accepted nutritional standards.

The special social relief package, which the South African government introduced in April 2020, comprised two new grants, namely the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant (SRD), targeting unemployed working-age adults at R350 per person per month, and the Caregivers’ Allowance, at R500 per month, for mothers and primary caregivers of CSG recipients. These grants meant that, for the first time since the dawn of democracy in this country, the government made special provisions for unemployed adults and acknowledged the unpaid reproductive and care labour of women raising children in low-income households. Both new grants improved the recipients’ lives through improved diets and allowed caregivers to spend money on essential needs. Zembe-Mkabile discovered that for the first time since the birth of many children participating in the study, receiving the caregivers’ allowance and food parcels ensured greater food security for these households. Remarkably, it took a devastating pandemic which affected low-income households with children disproportionally for these same households to experience a more comprehensive social assistance system. This assistance system came closer than any previous policy intervention to ensuring their food security. The termination of the caregivers’ allowance had a devastating impact on these households, even if they only received it for five months.

Confronted with the reality of poverty in these areas and the negative cultural trends perpetuated by poverty, this study exposes the challenges confronting most underprivileged South Africans. While suggestions for farming were tabled, the reality is that that option will never be sufficient to ensure that disadvantaged people have access to healthy foods and livelihoods. With the high unemployment rate exacerbated by the pandemic, poverty continues to be challenging. A comprehensive social security system catering for low-income, working-age adults and primary caregivers of children residing in low-income households, which transfers adequate amounts of money linked to objective measures of need, is imperative for ensuring food security and poverty alleviation in South Africa.

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