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What happens when policy champions move on? The case of welfare in South Africa

Date added: November 30, 2016

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Much of the literature on citizen accountability focuses on citizen voices. This research briefing is one of four which turn the spotlight on the how the state behaves in instances of accountable governance. Each examines a landmark social justice policy process in Africa, asking when and how the state listened, and to which actors; and why, at times, it chose not to listen.

South Africa’s welfare policy was reformed in 1997, establishing a grants system that today covers 16 million recipients. This process was driven by ‘policy champions’ – individuals who nurture a policy for years, waiting for an opportunity to suggest it as the solution to a pressing problem (Kingdon 2002). But once these champions moved on – taking with them their expertise, networking abilities and persistence – the key advocates for implementing the reforms were lost.

In the absence of policy champions, the Department for Social Development focused almost exclusively on rolling out the Child Support Grant. This played a significant role in reducing poverty and improving early childhood nutrition, and correlated with improved performance among school-going children. But the focus on grants also meant that other types of welfare received less attention, while some services were left under-funded. The policy champions’ original vision – for a more holistic change in social welfare and reduced income inequality – failed to materialise.

The research concluded that:

  • when the policy champions who drove the changes to South Africa’s welfare sector departed, the implementation of their proposed reforms became less effective
  • policy-makers in South Africa have been unable to shift away from the notion of poverty reduction towards inclusive growth that reduces income inequality; such a shift is critical for improving the welfare of poor South Africans and for the stability of social order.

This Research Briefing is part of the When Does the State Listen? series.

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