Ruth First would be pleased by this evening’s focus on poverty and exclusion. The theme should help us to re-think the widespread notion that poverty and exclusion in South Africa can be overcome through individual effort.


Secondly, we need to confront the reality that poverty and exclusion do not relate to a minority, which could be categorized as arginal, but rather to the living conditions and experiences of the majority of the population.

The unemployment rate of 40% and the fact that 53% of households have an income of R800 a month or less indicate this. Recent data released by HSRC show that 74 % of youth under the age of 24 are unemployed.

This means that many South Africans are excluded from leading productive lives, which enable them to develop and express their capacities.


Ek moet skarrel om te lewe (I have to hustle to survive) is how a mother and recipient of a child grant responds when asked how she survives on the monthly R250, which the State allocates to needy children.


There are seven cash grants that constitute social protection and over twelve million South Africans receive some sort of social grant from the State.


Of these, the child support grant takes the largest part of the budget, and is currently the single largest programme for alleviating child poverty in the country.


It was designed by the Lund Commission thirteen years ago and consists of a cash transfer under the age of 16.


Since its introduction in 1997 the amount has more than doubled from R100 to R250 and more than 8,5 million children survive on the grant today.


The most prevalent perception- one reinforced by the mainstream media – is that the nameless and faceless twelve million social grant recipients are a burden to the State to Society.


Addressing an ANC rally in Gugulethu in 2008, President Jacob Zuma said, that government needed to tackle the situation in which schoolgirls fall pregnant while exploiting the social grant system, We want to end this so that we can be a nation of values. But who are these nameless citizens and what do they do with the cash grants? Tonight, I want to take you into the lives of young and poor working class mothers living in Mitchell’s Plain, a township on the periphery of Cape Town.


What is this skarrel hustle all about and how exactly are they surviving while essentially being excluded from mainstream society?


Ruth First exposed and wrote passionately about the living conditions of the poor and how a system undermined and denigrated people. Over the past few months, the fellowship afforded me the opportunity to place names to the faces of those who receive cash grants from the State- and by doing so give a voice and agency to the young women. I did not need too go far to do this, as I chose the community where I was raised, Mitchell’s Plain.

Having grown up in Mitchell’s Plain gave me an advantage: I was not seen as a journalist, researcher or outsider but rather seen as someone who was a trustworthy older sister, speaking the local lingo and being an insider. The twenty- five women whose story I want to share with you tonight are single poor working class women from Eastridge, Mithell’s Plain between the ages of 18-30 with one or two children. The resistance and resilience that I found amongst them was insightful, it challenged my own stereotypes and bias of my community. It is a group of young women that are supported by their broad social networks- both inside family and broader community. The support networks are largely matriarchal with men glaringly absent. Tonight, I would like to bring into close focus, a historical overview of coloured women in the Western Cape, Mitchell’s Plain, as the specific geographic area.


The narratives of the young women I interviewed, a look at the salient features that emerged out of the interviews such as, social exclusion, the impact of violence, drugs and community networks in their daily lives and Finally some of the debates around the social grants and some closing remarks.


Historically, the Western Cape was a colored labor preference area, implying that this group benefitted from jobs over black African people living here. The demographics of the Western Cape meant that “colored” women were employed in the textile factories- the mainstay of livelihoods on the Cape Flats. As some scholars point out that “colored” women were the unintended beneficiaries of this set of racial legislation and were thus strategically located as power brokers for their communities within the apartheid social structure.


During the 1970’s up until the mid 1990’s the majority of “colored” women were employed in the clothing factories of the Western Cape. According to the main clothing union, 40% of people in the Western Cape were employed in this sector, the majority being women. In 1990 there were about 40 000 women employed in the clothing sector, this excludes the women who were working in the informal and un-unionised cut and trim industry. In many households on the Cape Flats, they were the main breadwinners, which gave them a measure of power over men.


Women made the key decisions in terms of the choice of schooling for their children, specific household priorities and more importantly neighbors and younger people depended on them for advice on important decisions.


For many years, I saw this interaction play itself out with my mother and several aunts, who were employed in the clothing sector.


These historical and political leanings have to be contextualized in the status that “colored” people were afforded under apartheid.

Before 1994, ‘colored’ women had access to child support grants of around R850 per month, although this amount was far less than what was granted to white and Indian communities. Black African communities did not receive these grants at all.


However, the narratives of the young women I interviewed in Mitchell’s Plain are far removed and represent everything but the “power brokers” scholars like Elaine Salo refer to. In this post-apartheid era, these women are not privileged in any way nor are they the only beneficiaries of the social grant. Employment in factories is no longer guaranteed. The economic viability of cheap imported goods from Asian countries like China and India, over locally manufactured goods, have forced several factories to close down in this area, and had lead to wide-scale job losses that have threatened people’s livelihoods. This is evident in recent data provided by trade unions.


In Jan 1990, 40 000 women were employed in this sector in the Western Cape. In 2010, it is half with only about 17 600 women employed.


According to data provided by SACTWU, more than 80 000 jobs were lost between 1990 and 1999. During the first 11 months of 2009, an estimated 13 400 jobs were shed.

In order to understand these women’s lived experiences, it is necessary to look at their specific spatial surrounding. Cape Town is a City where poverty jostles against each other for space and ownership. It is a city where excess and poverty sit uncomfortably side by side and a city divided along class and racial lines. The sprawling township of Mitchell’s Plain is located on the Cape Flats, WAS created as a result of the notorious Group Areas Act of 1950. The Cape Flats has also been described as apartheids dumping ground.


The Group Areas ACT banned people of color from living in the central areas like the Cape Town Central Business District and removed hundreds of thousands to areas such as Bonteheuwel and Mitchell’s Plain. In order to reach Mitchells Plain, you have to journey away from the prime real estate of the rich and even pass the revamped, world-class airport on the N2. As you drive to Mitchell’s Plain you leave Table Mountain and the world-famous beaches of Cape Town behind.


Named after the farmer who owned the land, Mitchells Plain was the last ‘colored’ township built by the National Party in 1977. Today, it is home to an estimated million plus people – according to the local development office- although official census figures of 2001, lists more than 400 000 people live in the area with the majority being women.


The United Democratic Front was launched here in 1985, but 25 years after that historic event the area is still bleak and windswept, with limited recreational facilities. Distant from the City, it is often associated with drugs, gangsterism and poverty.


60 percent of the area’s inhabitants are unemployed with more than 50 percent of the residents being under the age of 30.


In the greater Cape Town, with its 3,2 million residents, there are close to 220 000 grant beneficiaries receiving some 140 million rand.


In Mitchell’s Plain there are close to 28 000 direct beneficiaries of the child social grant. For many mothers in Mitchell’s Plain, the R240 child support grant they receive is their only source of income if one excludes the social support they receive from friends and family.


 Giving a Name to the Silent Voices


Young women receiving child social grants are viewed as opportunistic, lazy and desperate. And therefore seen as worthless, discarded and left to fend for themselves. Presumably living off the State.


In reality the women are in fact battling to survive and trying to make ends meet of every opportunity they can access so as to give their children a better chance in life. However, without the matriarchal networks in the community like their grandmothers, sisters, mothers and aunties, they would be unable to make ends meet.


They form part of the 75,4 % of South Africa’s population that is defined as poor.


Contrary to popular belief they did not fall pregnant to simply access this cash grant. In fact most of them only applied for the grant when their babies were about six months old. Some of the young women felt that there were social stigmas attached to applying for the grant. As one young woman told me, It took some encouragement and support from my parents to apply for the grant.


Research released by Human Research Council in 2006 concluded that there was no relationship between teenage fertility and the grant. Allow me to give you a snapshot in the life of Five of the WOMEN, Tanya, Edwin, Margaret, Rihanna and Candice.


Tanya, 20 and Edwina, 17, Abrahams, are sisters – two of several women whose only means of survival is the social grant. Small of stature, they could be mistaken for 15-year old twin girls “ very possible due to malnourishment. The two sisters live off the R250 (minus the ten and back charges) rand per month they receive from the State for each of their two children.


The 240 rand is spent on nappies, milk, food and something for the pot. They live with their foster mother and during the month, do ‘odd’ jobs- domestic work to supplement their income to buy basic foodstuffs. These young women find themselves scrambling to survive, underweight and having [not] only enough money to support their children with basic food.


The first time I meet Rihanna Johnson, she reeked of alcohol and admitted she’s had a few drinks and addressed me in Afrikaans. I drink to forget about my problems. What problems, I ask? “Ek moet skarrel om te liewe” ( I have to hustle to survive).


Only twenty-six and a mother of an 11-year old son, she is unemployed and homeless. Unable to afford the rent, she lives on the goodwill of strangers.


The child support grant is her only income for the month. With this money she has to buy food for her son and pay her debts. I borrow R50 from the money lender and then have to repay her debt plus interest. Domestic abuse by strangers she drinks with is another reality she faces. I have to find a way to live and make a way.


Community organizations have noted that domestic violence is a concern in the area and on closer inspection of the statistics, crimes against women and children have been on the increase, especially brutal attacks against women. These are the cases we know about, and of the women who have reported abuse we know there are many who don’t.


The women’s survival stories, offer a window into their lives; the exclusions they face and the simple hard choices they make. We have opted for the free government 3-month contraceptive injection. In the women’s case it is a cheaper option and saves much needed cash.


Simply put, they cannot afford to buy sanitary towels and this form of contraception is cheaper and saves them about R20 rand a month, even though the long-term impact of this form of contraceptive on their bodies could spell disaster for their future health. This is simply a cheaper option, which saves them money that could instead be used to buy much needed food.


As the young women relate their stories, they are clear that their children are their priorities but admit that it is a struggle to survive. When they do collect their grant, for a brief moment they imagine having money [ not having to think where the money is coming from] -eating a treat like fish and chips and doing window- shopping, dreaming of the day when they can afford to buy clothes for the children without having to count their cents. They briefly imagine a moment of excess and indulging in eating a “luxury meal” like MacDonald’s and buying clothes- things that many of us take for granted.

Far away out of sight out of mind: Social Exclusion in Action

As earlier highlighted, dislocated from the City, the area is often associated with domestic violence, drugs and unemployment with most of the women interviewed having at some point in their lives faced all three.


Domestic Violence


In talking about the violence and abuse they suffered at the hands of their boyfriends, they recognized that it took courage and perseverance to walk out of the relationships.


However disenfranchised as they are, many of them recognized the need, and summed up the courage and perseverance to walk out of the relationships who made no contribution to their or their children’s livelihoods.


According to the 2008/2009 statistics for Mitchell’s Plain there were 508 sex crimes reported and close to 3000 common assaults cases opened.


After giving birth, most of these children’s deadbeat fathers left and have never supported their children. The women all referred to the men as useless. Rihanna and many others said, “Hulle is almal gemorste en is useless” (they are all rubbish) and are useless).


Shortly after giving birth, the men left them to fend for themselves. Even though they face a life of deprivation, these women have a strong sense of self worth most poignantly illustrated by their decision to leave these abusive relationships they were in with the fathers of their children.


The Tik Monster

Drugs have played a devastating role and have ironically proved to be a turning point in many of the women’s lives. Most of the young women were at some point addicted to a cheap, highly addictive drug commonly referred to as ‘tik’.


The Abrahams sisters know all too well about the toxic mix of drugs and violence. As Tanya points out, she was addicted to tik. This, she says, made her feel like she was a superstar and could do anything she wanted. The drug made her a mean machine that could withstand any pain.


I would be asleep during the day and at night be wide awake and plan where the next fix and cash would be coming from, if it included stealing from the neighbors so be it. During this time, she would not eat and was even shoplifting at times. All of which was done to support her drug habit. As Candice told me, It made me forget about my problems of not having any money to buy food for my children.


They claim the cash for their drug habit came from friends and strangers who wanted them to share in the “moment” of being able to forget about the problems of unemployment, hunger and deprivation.


But the good times, as some of them referred to the freebies had to eventually come to an end. The neglect of their children could no longer continue and they realized the hunger and starvation would not disappear and a reality drugs would never be able take away.


Most of the women pointed out that the absentee fathers who contributed little to none to their livelihoods also wanted to benefit from a slice of the child support grant. As Margaret told me that this meant that with the meager amount, the men wanted the money to support their drug habits and the women realized that this was detrimental to themselves and their children’s well being.


Social and Community Networks
In most cases the women are penniless a few days after receiving their grant. The rest of the month they live from ‘hand to mouth’, as they put it. They get angry at their situations and feel that they are missing out on life. “I feel junk, there is no future without a job.”


Most of the women live with their parents: “Our parents have to help out and give us food to eat. Although they can nag and make us feel guilty for having a child out of wedlock they would never allow us to go to bed hungry”.


Most of the women say they would love to work, but there is simply nothing available. After spending almost R50 per day on public transport to get into town, to seek out employment opportunities, some have given up. Many are not choosy about the type of work they are willing to do. “I will clean floors, be a tea girl, anything as long as I can put bread on the table”. “A job will enable me to dream of owning my own house and pay the creche fees for my child”.


Margaret Edwards has three children and she admits that it is a struggle to survive, I feel stressed, down and cannot cope. A few days after queuing for the grant at the local community centre. All Pay (grant system payment) you have to ask the neighbor for sugar and some bread. It is usually the auntie next door who will share her last with us.


During the month they will also have to buy food and nappies, “op die bookie” (on credit).


The auntie sells everything including single nappies and baby milk, it is more expensive that the shops, but what we I do? They say they do not have much of a choice in doing this: either we eat and pay later or we go sleep hungry.


Going to bed hungry is something many of the women know all too well. It’s their daily reality -begging for food and depending on the goodwill of neighbors and women in the area. “Ons raak kwaad and is frustrated”. I ensure there is enough food for my son, a place for him to sleep and then I hustle. Some even admit that at times they are tempted to head to a local bar to sell themselves, just so that to have some money to buy food for their children. Although they say they have never done this but their desperation to ensure their children have food and shelter will perhaps take them on this desperate journey. In most cases it is the informal social networks of older women in the community that would come to their rescue when there is no more food.

The state and social grants

Over the last few years there have been several debates about the effectiveness of the child support grant and its intended or unintended usage. Reflecting on the recent service delivery protests, a senior government official pointed out: it could reflect a culture of dependency on the State we have unwittingly created since 1994.


As Shireen Hassim, has pointed out that South Africa is regularly described as the developing world’s largest and most generous welfare state, yet the country’s Human Development index rating, which measures life expectancy and education, has not significantly improved since the ANC assumed power. As Steven Friedman points out, that part of the elitism of the anti-grants brigade is a belief that government programmes that give poor people what the government thinks they want are development, while grants are dependency.

Largely seen as powerless and voiceless these young women have no impact on the policies and legislation that governs their lives- whether at community level, through their ward councillors or the policymakers in the Jacaranda City. Distant from Pretoria the only interaction they have to the government is the local Grant official.


Nigerian scholar, Adebayo Adedeji’s analysis of African states’ failure to acknowledge the plight and poverty of their citizens is instructive in this regard.


He argues that political elites compete fiercely for power, resource control and economic spoils. This makes inevitable their neglect of social conflicts, rather that being primarily concerned with the promotion of the interest of the masses by putting in place a holistic human development strategy with the overarching goals of the eradication of poverty and socio-economic justice.


A priority to build a stadium instead of houses has seen the perpetuation of the existence of two parallel worlds existing in South Africa – one rich with a living standard likened that to some European countries and the other one poor with a standard of living of Congo-Brazzaville.


This reiterates the point that whilst grants ensure survival they are insufficient to enable poor young women to escape from poverty and lead productive lives.


Finally, I would like to draw your attention back to a brief reflection of the different stories of the young women.


To me they illustrate the reality of working class women in Mitchell’s Plain and indeed the feminization of poverty. It could be argued that Rihanna, Tanya and Edwina are a relative unimportant constituency because they do not have economic social and political power, in so far as they are non-taxpayers and not organised in political structures and are unemployed.


Tonight, through these stories, I have tried to point out that these women’s desperation and disengagement with the State should be a concern to us. The stories of the women reflect survival and the hustle stories should be seen as an everyday resistance to the social evils and pressures such as drugs and violence that persists. Importantly this research underscores the stereotypes, prejudices that exists about those that receive cash grants.


Sixteen years into post-apartheid South Africa, they find themselves continuing to live on the margins of society. Dislocated, disconnected they are trapped in an ongoing cycle of poverty and deprivation. In this way, they remain on the periphery of society. Is this the new South Africa so many dreamt of? Is this the constitutional democracy so many had died for? The stories of these women provide a window into the lives of a large percentage of women in SA. A window into how people live and survive, and as the narrative have shown, illustrates their social exclusion.


The grant is their only means of participation in the mainstream economy even if it lasts only for a few days. As the narratives suggest, the social exclusion means there are never any extras for clothes or other luxuries. The choices that they make are all about surviving and living from day to day. There can be no long-term planning, as it is all about the here and now living from hand to mouth.


These women are the casualties of a country that is all too keen to present a world-class face to the outside world but not provide world-class services and opportunities to its own people. For these women, a job would open the door to dignity to provide for the most basic needs. It would mean not having to beg or depend on moneylenders for food for their children.


Communities and households act as shock absorbers of state failures, and women’s gendered burden’s increase, despite formal commitment to gender equality. These are the silent citizens whose voices are only heard when their votes are needed by political parties. A community of women in SA who feel lost, and the sisterhood and community that they live in is the only hope they have. Their stories highlight the contradiction of the South African dream. We spent billions of rand on showcasing to the world how amazing our infrastructure is; yet 70 percent of our people live below the poverty line.


We have to look at alternative ways to reintegrate these women back into mainstream society and a sensitization to their lived experience. If South Africa is serious by halving poverty by 2015 it could start by listening to the cries of those silent communities across the country.