Those who think that working for government and being a public servant is an 8am to 4pm job should think again. It is now 8:15pm on a cold and wet Tuesday night in Cape Town, but work has not stopped, and the day is far from over for Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini and her team. After being in back-to-back meetings well into the evening, Minister Dlamini is finally able to speak to me.
Getting right into talking about celebrating Social Development Month this October and unpacking the department’s achievements, Dlamini stresses the major call to action for her department. Going forward government and public servants alike are making services and opportunities accessible to all South Africans.
“One of the major challenges we face as government is not getting services to our people at grass-roots level. We need to get structures in place in order for us to change the lives of the people – we are here to serve.”
Despite her idea of increasing accessibility being rejected by senior leadership, the minister did not let it deter her. Through passion and sheer perseverance, her department succeeded in recently launching its new flagship programme called Project Mikondzo, which means ‘increasing the footprints’ in Xitsonga. The launch took place just in time for Social Development month.
“During many of my visits to various districts, I hear about people who have visited our provincial offices at least five times with no assistance; I hear of social workers who have aided people without physically setting foot into people’s homes. This is unacceptable. We cannot distance ourselves from the very people we serve. How can we begin to understand the plight of our people without walking in their footsteps?” asks Dlamini.
The aim of the project is to extend the reach of the services that the department and its entities provide to South Africans at community level. The new project will focus on 1 300 of the poorest wards in the country, taking a basket range of services to those communities.
Project Mikondzo will also pay attention to strengthening civil society organisations, through the National Development Agency, to help the department deal with the challenges of food security, early childhood development, gender-based violence, and capacity building of non-governmental organisations.
“Social development is the nerve centre of the government. If the nerve centre is not accessible it means our people’s lives will not change.”
One of the department’s biggest functions is that of providing social service grants. These include child support, older persons, disability, care dependency and foster child grants. In 1992, only about 2.5 million people received grants but today there are about 16 million grant recipients. What is an even greater achievement, says Dlamini, is that the better part of beneficiaries, approximately 11 million, are children.
“This allows us as a government to build the best foundation for our children, and ensure that no child goes to school without a plate of food.” The department has also made great strides in increasing the older persons grant from bi-monthly to monthly.
Previously women received a grant at 60 and men at 65, the department has since equalised this to 60 years old, says the minister.
Dlamini’s portfolio handles the many harsh realities that thousands of South Africans still face today, such as hunger, domestic violence and abuse.
“We deal with families, problems of disintegration, families who face unemployment due to the economic downturn, families plagued by domestic violence, women and children who suffer from abuse, we deal with child- and youth-headed households, substance and alcohol abuse – these all lead us back to creating a solid foundation for children and families.
“Our focus on children and creating better families has had to shift. We cannot fix a problem when a child is already 14 years old, or when families are already disintegrated. Access to early childhood development services is at the top of our agenda, building needs to start in the first 1 000 days of a child’s life.”
The ANC agrees. It extended the developmental period of the first 1 000 days by two additional years at its 53rd National Conference recently. This gives children at least four years’ access to Early Childhood Development services. It is during the first years of life that a human being learns about their emotions, psychological and physical stability, behaviour and intellect. There are plans in place to ensure that all early childhood development centres are registered and early childhood practitioners appropriately trained.
The Department of Social Development is currently auditing early childhood development centres. The purpose is to get information on the nature and extent of early childhood development provisioning, services, resources and infrastructure to inform and support on-going policy and planning initiatives.
The audit started in the Northern Cape in August. The Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Free State were audited in September. Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo will be audited this month and KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng will be done in November.
Society takes development for granted; however, the harsh reality is that many factors hinder a child’s growth or a family’s development. To assist, the department has launched various victim-empowerment programmes. These teach parents, through the help of social workers, to assist and mould children, and to create a safe and stable family setting.
Early childhood development, admits Dlamini, is a pet project of hers. “I strongly believe that if we as a country and as a department can focus on children, we can take many families out of this cycle of poverty.”
One of the major challenges affecting our society, she says, is alcohol and substance abuse. “It saddens me greatly, but this is a battle that government cannot fight alone. It goes back to parenting, and parents have to take responsibility.”
Programmes for parental training are also underway. “Most of the time when children get caught up in the wrong things, parents are quick to blame the government, yet they forget about the responsibilities they have as parents. Parents need to be taught the basic fundamentals about parenting. We have so many young mothers – some as young as 15 who have no idea on how to parent, and on the other hand we have parents who work and neglect their duties. Many parents do not understand the roles and responsibilities that actually come with being a parent.”
Creating good relationships with children from a young age is crucial. “What children in our society lack is trust and guidance,” highlights Dlamini. “Parents need to build trust amongst their children and not fail them, so that a child is able to tell their parents what is actually going on around them. They should be the first one a child goes to, to report abuse or any challenges they face.”
South Africa is often criticised for creating what many perceive to be a “nanny” or dependant state by, amongst others, paying out grants, but the Minister strongly disagrees with this view.
“Currently we have more than a million orphans in this country; we have families that cannot find work, children who live with their grandmothers, and children who take care of themselves and their younger siblings. Giving these children a grant is not creating a dependency; it is creating a support system to build a better foundation and a better life for these children. That is our overall goal.
“Through creating social solidarity, we are addressing the imbalances of the past, and through the issuing of these grants, we are going to have fewer children not attending school and a lower rate of drop outs. Through our dialogues with young people from child- and youth-headed households, we are able to address problems like lack of food. These problems look small, but to a child, and to us as a government, they are extremely important,” says the minister.
Another huge project on the cards for her department is the introduction of a programme that will complement the child support grant and eventually take young people out of the grant system, says the minister.
Based on best practices implemented in other countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom, there is a strong consensus that young mothers or caregivers must work for a grant, and it should not just be seen as something that is free.
“We have already established an agreement and are working with the Department of Basic Education to ensure that young children attend school, and young mothers who have dropped out of school also complete their schooling.”
In addition, mothers must find employment, at least twice a week, to develop their skills and enable them to find full-time employment in the long run, so that they no longer need or rely on a child-support grant.
“We are tweaking this programme a bit, despite some of the programmes starting with good intentions, they aren’t always perceived in that way by society.”
The issue of children suffering from malnutrition has affected the minister the most. “I hate to see a child who has no food. It breaks my heart. That is why I have thrown my efforts into the early childhood development programmes. I don’t want to see children suffering or falling through the cracks. We have to make sure that we don’t lose children, because they are the future of this country.”
The minister says the only way we can turn the social system around is by creating a better life for our people. The only way for us to do that is by having compassionate and caring public servants.
“If we, as public servants, do not take the services to the people, how can we realise a better future for our people?” asks Dlamini.
This Social Development Month, the minister urges all public servants to play their role in ensuring that service delivery through a caring and compassionate government is realised.