Contemporary issues: Women’s struggle, 1900-1994

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Garment worker, Durban. 1986 photo by Omar Badsha

Poverty and development

One of the most important issues for women in South Africa has always been that of poverty. During the apartheid years, black women were forced into the rural areas to live off the land, without opportunities and choices allowing them to build decent lives for themselves.

Only some were fortunate enough to receive money from husbands who were working on the mines and towns. This has left a legacy of devastating poverty on the black women of the country today, where the poorest of the poor are still living under extremely trying conditions.

Women predominate in the rural areas, which are usually the poorest. Both in the rural and urban environment, women often have to take on the role of caregiver, making employment options difficult. Despite not being able to work because of the task of childcare, the women of the house are still perceived as the people responsible for feeding the family (especially the mother). Almost 40% of children under the age of 7 years live only with their mother, while many live with their grandmothers.

Customs or traditions further contribute to the poverty of women. An example of this can be seen in the Eastern Cape, where some women are subjected to the customary assumption that only men can own property. Polygamy also plays a role as new wives are often a priority and older wives neglected.

Apart from being under huge financial strain, poor women are more at risk of physical abuse. This often happens as a result of a sense of powerlessness that the man in the house may have because he is unemployed. Even in instances where the husband does earn a salary, many women are suffering physical violence at the hands of their husbands. These women are often not economically independent and therefore do not leave the abusive situation.

An example of this is a Cape Town woman who explained:

People say we must be patient about married life, so we put up with oppression. If you are not working, it is worse. What will I do if I leave this man? I must wait, even for one cent. (1)
Quantitative analyses generally show that the poverty rate in South Africa varies between 40% and 50%.

It is often incorrectly assumed that poverty relates only to the unemployed. A study on The Effect of Minimum Wages on the Employment and Earnings of South Africa's Domestic Services Workers, conducted by the Development Policy Research Unit of the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town, has showed that around 58 per cent of domestic workers still earn less than the minimum wage.

Many women work on farms, where the minimum wage law as set by the Department of Labour is still sometimes ignored.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) and the South African NGO Coalition (SANGOCO) convened a series of ten hearings on poverty between March and June 1998, where nearly 600 people presented oral evidence on poverty in their communities. The participants included, among others, domestic and farm workers. Many said that despite poor wages and conditions, they are reluctant to resign as they are desperate for even the most pitiful amount of money. They know that if they leave their jobs, there are many others willing to take their place. Many of the testimonies ascribed their current problems to the past where they had lived under discrimination and disadvantage. Some acknowledged the improvements which had come since 1994, but most complained of ongoing poor service and non-delivery by government to alleviate their problems.

Grants and Pensions

The poverty hearings brought to the fore a number of problems relating to government grants for the poor. Many people face administrative and other difficulties when trying to access grants, while others complain that their grants had been stopped without warning.

Because women tend to live longer than men, they have to support themselves for a longer period after retirement, making them more vulnerable to poverty in old age. The old age pension is government's most significant poverty alleviation measure. Research has shown that it is effectively targeted at women, black people and rural people. Women older than 60 years of age with an annual income of less than R19 182.00 can apply for the grant. (The maximum amount of income changes yearly, the figure supplied here was for 2005).

Some of the pension is often used for supporting other people in the household, usually children. Some women unfortunately still struggle to get pensions because of problems with identity documents, distance to pay points, etc. However, despite all these shortcomings, the impact of the old age grant on poverty levels of women is significant.

The Child Support Grant is a grant payable to a primary care giver (who may or may not be related to the child), with a monthly income less that R1 100.00, in respect of a child up to the age of 14. The most significant effect of his grant is that school enrolment figures among the poor have increased, giving these children the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty by getting a proper education and employment later on.

The Care Dependency Grant is a grant payable to the Parents, Foster Parents, guardians or custodians for a child between the ages of 1 and 18 years in their care, who due to severe mental and/or physical disability, needs full time care.

The Foster Care Grant is a monthly payment made to the foster parents of a child who has been placed in their custody in terms of the Child Care Act.

Last updated : 10-Mar-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011