Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Grandmothers Against Poverty

It was obvious everywhere we went in South Africa that grandmothers are the glue that holds most of society together, particularly in rural and impoverished areas. Before coming to South Africa, I had assumed that that was primarily because of the traditional role that grandmothers played in the care and rearing of their grandchildren while parents were busy at jobs far away.

While travelling to six of the country's nine provinces, however, it became clear that grandmothers also are a major economic force in large part because they receive a little over 800 Rand per month (about US $115) in old-age pension benefits. I met many older women--some of them in their 70s and 80s--who were caring for their grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, clothing them, feeding them, paying their school fees out of this modest pension benefit.

(Leonora Msikinya, 85, (pictured above) who I met in Ethembeni in the Eastern Cape has dedicated the remaining years of her life to fighting HIV by talking clearly in her community and church about sex, pregnancy and HIV. She has even been featured on anti-AIDS billboards throughout the country.)

What became very obvious to me, while visiting with these women and their families, is that they and their old-age pensions are also an important bulwark against poverty.

Indeed, a June 2007 study by Charles Meth, who is associated with both the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Cape Town, concludes that of the three major social grants available in South Africa (old age, children support, disability), "old age pensions have the greatest impact on poverty. In 2004, the approximately two million pensions raised about 1.5 million people in 600 000 households over the poverty line."

Which brings me to my next questions: What hope is there for you if you're poor and don't have a grandmother in South Africa? Would a modest basic income grant for those living on less than a dollar a day--something that Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought up again at a church meeting in Johannesburg in July, but which doesn't seem to be getting much traction among the powers that be in South Africa--make a difference?

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