South Africa’s social protection system

By Senzeni Ngubane

On 24 May 1994, the newly elected democratic President of South Africa Nelson Mandela, stood up in Parliament in his first State of the Nation Address and committed his government to the following:

“My Government's commitment to create a people-centred society of liberty binds us to the pursuit of the goals of freedom from want, freedom from hunger, freedom from deprivation, freedom from ignorance, freedom from suppression and freedom from fear. These freedoms are fundamental to the guarantee of human dignity. They will therefore constitute part of the centrepiece of what this Government will seek to achieve, the focal point on which our attention will be continuously focused. The things we have said constitute the true meaning, the justification and the purpose of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, without which it would lose all legitimacy.”

Recently Statistics South Africa released its fourth census report since the dawn of democracy in 1994. It clearly demonstrated that the policies and programmes that our government has implemented is bearing fruit, that we have made huge progress in redressing the imbalances of the past. While we still have much to do, we are certainly on track to see that the vision of our beloved founding father is still within our grasp.

The report assists government to understand the long-term impact of various government policies and programmes on the country and its citizens. The Census 2022 lays bare notable progress we have made in a number of areas as well as challenges that require us to redouble our efforts in order to realise the dream of our founders, which is to ensure a better life for all.

For those who lived under apartheid and remember the devastation - the Census findings show that indeed we have changed for the better, and conclusively demonstrates that our development was not by accident, but rather by design through various government programmes implemented since 1994.

They furthermore show that our social welfare system has made a huge difference in the lives of the poorest households especially schoolchildren by ensuring that no one slips below a minimum standard of living. The introduction of no-fee schools, Early Childhood Development and school nutrition programmes has undoubtedly had a positive impact on enrolments and improvements in the outputs of the educational system.

Over 9 million learners benefit from the National School Nutrition Programme, which contributes towards the country’s realisation of the Millennium Development Goals especially in making education accessible to the poor. The programme enhances the learning capacity of learners through the provision of a healthy meal at schools. This means that children can learn better because they are not hungry and it has resulted in close to 100 percent attendance by children until at least the age of 15.

Our progress is underscored by the 2021 World Bank report in that our social protection system has helped protect vulnerable people and ensured they can meet their basic needs. It has been  at the heart of transforming lives and has been a springboard for change in communities throughout our nation. It is also central to government’s poverty alleviation programme and central to restoring the dignity of our people.

Our social protection system is  made up of a basket of social grants which serve to protect the most poor and vulnerable of our society, those previously marginalised from the economy and the ones who never got the opportunities to learn and grow. Social grants are by far the largest portion of the social protection system with more than 18 million beneficiaries. Social grants bring financial security to many families and contribute towards improving the standard of living of people.

As a caring government, we will continue to provide social assistance to poor and vulnerable South Africans. Through it, we continue to improve the living conditions of poor, vulnerable and underprivileged South Africans. These include unemployed South Africans as well as orphaned and vulnerable children living in child headed households.

It is sometimes all too easy to forget that the majority of people in  this country were excluded from receiving social grants under apartheid. They were discriminated against on the basis of their race and this left our country with high levels of poverty and inequality. Children suffered the most under Apartheid and according to UNICEF nearly one fifth were underweight and malnourishment left them vulnerable to health problems such as cognitive delays and long-term impairment. 

This state of affairs also led to a number of children under the age of five years not going to school or crèche in the early 1990s. It is against this background that upon becoming a President in 1994, former President Nelson Mandela prioritised rebuilding a nation torn apart by apartheid and at the same time reform unfairly distributed social protection system.  One of the earliest decisions of his administration was to provide free health care to children under 6 and for pregnant women. It is therefore no accident then that we see improvements in life expectancy, health status and education levels.

Some mistakenly claim that our social assistance programme is nothing but a handout or that we are celebrating the increase in the number of beneficiaries.  This is far from the truth; social grants bring financial security to many families and is the main source of income for many South Africans. They bring stability to families; contribute towards improving the standard of living of our people and creating a more equitable society.

In most cases grants, which include pensions, disability payments and child support grants, support entire households. Many households would be destitute without our social assistance safety net, which has been shown to have contributed to a reduction in poverty in South Africa.

Of course, social grants are a short-term solution. Our long term aim is to create job opportunities through the implementation of the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan and other initiatives such as the Presidential Stimulus as well as increase access to education and training.

We however, know that more must still be done and we will continue to work to drive back poverty levels, while raising household income levels, along with working to ensure a better tomorrow for all.