/ 11 September 2007

Act discriminates against elderly men, court hears

The Social Assistance Act unfairly discriminates against a group of men who are among the poorest of the poor in South Africa, the Pretoria High Court heard on Tuesday.

The Port Elizabeth Justice Centre, on behalf of four Eastern Cape men, were joined by the Human Rights Commission, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits and the Community Law Centre at the University of the Western Cape in their constitutional challenge against the provisions of section 10 of the Act.

The Act entitled men to apply for state old-age pensions, based on a needs test, when they reached the age of 65, but entitled women to start receiving the pension at the of 60, the court heard.

Keith Matthee, on instructions of the Legal Aid Board’s Port Elizabeth Justice Centre, on Tuesday argued that the legislation discriminated against poor men between the ages of 60 and 64 and excluded them and their extended families from social assistance which would ensure their very survival.

He argued that the state had failed to apply its mind and simply ignored the plight of this group of disadvantaged citizens, who were being discriminated against because of their gender.

Matthee said the state’s argument that the differentiation was not unfair ”because people were not the same” was fundamentally flawed because it ignored a group of poor, underprivileged men, who were equally as vulnerable as women in their age group.

He said it was ”cynical” to suggest that the age of women should be increased to meet the new demands by men.

”This is not a pension, it’s a social security net. The applicants say we’re the same, treat us the same,” he added.

Matthew Chaskalson, for the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, argued that the government had resources to accommodate this group of poor men and could find the more than R2,7-billion that was needed in its budget, that was in any event marked by underspending.

He said the basis on which the state sought to withhold the benefit, namely budgetary constraints, could not be justified on the basis of discrimination.

The Human Rights Commission argued that differentiation based on gender not only discriminated against men but further prejudiced gay men who continued to be a marginalised group in society.

The inevitable consequences of retaining this current differentiation based on gender was that gay men — despite having the same obligations as men who were in a heterosexual relationship — would only be eligible for the old age grant when they both turned 65, they argued.

Paul Kennedy, for the Minister of Social Development and the Minister of Finance, said the submission that the state was indifferent to the plight of poor black men was unjustified.

He said women were ”more vulnerable and disadvantaged” than men in the same age group because black women had suffered double discrimination in the past because of their gender and race.

He said the state was continuously reviewing measures to increase the accessibility to social benefits, but this could not happen overnight and took time.

There were many people in the country who were living in a state of terrible poverty, but the Constitution did not require the immediate provision of a grant to ”anyone and everyone” who were poor.

”The state is working towards the progressive realisation of these goals. These are harsh choices that have to be made,” he said.

The application continues. – Sapa