'It is the children who suffer'

Thulile Radebe’s broad smile as she describes her one-year-old son’s attempts to walk belies her difficulties in trying to care for him.

For the past five months the 23-year-old single mother of two has queued for hours at the welfare office in Durban’s Umlazi township to find out when the child-support grant payments for Thabani will begin.

“Check again next month,” officials keep telling the part-time domestic worker, who applied for the grant in June last year.

Radebe laments: “In January they told me my file was taken by [forensic investigators hired to probe fraud] and they don’t know when I’ll get my money.” Her application was one of many wrongly seized by departmental fraud investigators.

With no support from the baby’s father, Radebe’s R600 monthly income has forced her and Thabani to live in her sister’s tiny kitchen. She has had to send her five-year-old, Thabo, to live with an aunt.

Welfare organisations rattle off the cases: a rural pensioner denied a grant because she hadn’t received a bar-coded ID book after years of waiting; a penniless mother of three shunted from one district office to another in search of a lost file.

“It’s the children who suffer,” points out children’s rights activist Shirin Motala.
Nearly 60%, or 11-million, of South Africa’s children live on less than R200 a month.

The child-support grant was launched in 1998 to assist poor parents and caregivers of children up to the age of seven. To qualify for the grant, rural recipients must earn less than R800 a month and their urban counterparts no more than R1 100.

But an already strained social welfare system struggled to get the ball rolling amid accusations of maladministration. The Black Sash and the Legal Resources Centre grew so frustrated that they began suing the Department of Social Development on behalf of grant applicants.

In KwaZulu-Natal alone the government has spent almost R20-million over the past two years fighting lawsuits brought by caregivers.

But the NGOs stress that it’s not all bad. The fact that the service exists and that the government has toiled to see that millions of children benefit from it is considered a major achievement.

“There’s been a huge departmental initiative to get children accessing the grant. They’ve committed resources and energy,” said Patricia Martin of the Alliance for Children’s Entitlement to Social Security (Acess), which represents 1 000 children’s organisations.

The government and NGOs have focused on access. After painfully slow progress in registering children in the first four years, the department now has about 3,5-million children listed. The government attributes this to the recruitment of thousands of new officials and the work of NGOs such as Acess, which have run registration “jamborees” countrywide.

In 2003, after intense lobbying, the child support grant was extended to all children under 14. The extension has been phased — seven and eight year olds became eligible in 2003, followed by those aged nine and 10 last year and 11- to 13-year-olds this year.

“We’ve been keeping pace,” said Selwyn Jahoma, the department’s chief director for grant administration. This financial year’s target was to register 1,8-million children, aged seven and eight, by the end of March 2005. “By last week we’d reached 1,9-million,” Jahoma said. The department had already registered 72% of the targeted 901 000 children between the ages of nine and 10.

“Without civil society, the targets would probably not have been reached,” Jahoma declared. The 134 mobile units that roam rural areas registering new applicants have helped. From next month children from 11 to 12 will be eligible.

But activists say the application requirements pose obstacles for people trying to qualify for grants. The bar-coded ID is meant to reduce fraud, but with long delays at home affairs — some people can wait up to two years for an ID book — it keeps countless needy parents from qualifying.

Getting into the system doesn’t necessarily mean an end to problems. Stories abound of corrupt officials, lost files and incompetence.

“We’ve committed to re-training 3 500 officials and have introduced competency-specific training,” said Jahoma. A new management information system and electronic registry were also being installed and the department planned to invest about R80-million in combating fraud.

“In our experience, less than one case in 50 is undeserving of social assistance in KwaZulu-Natal,” countered the Black Sash’s Erika Wessels.

The Social Development Ministry is planning a new agency to deliver services in all provinces. Whether this spells an end to the grant delays remains to be seen.

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