Blog | December 4, 2015 | Aalia Cassim

As part of Making All Voices Count’s research project When Does the State Listen? Aalia Cassim looks at the drivers of change in South Africa’s social welfare system since 1997, and identifies lessons about government champions, systemic capacity building, and the critical role of stakeholder coordination.

A child among the hundreds of local people who took to the streets to demand that the local municipality speed up land redistribution for farm workers in South Africa.

Eric Miller / Panos Pictures

In 1997, the South African government launched its White Paper for Social Welfare, conceived around an idea of development which would empower poor South Africans to climb out of poverty traps and improve their standard of living, instead of a welfare system fostering dependency on aid and maintaining a state of poverty.

Nearly twenty years on, it is widely agreed that pro-poor growth has not yet been realised. Whilst cash transfers have proved to reduce the level of extreme poverty and have a positive impact on various socio-economic objectives including education and nutrition, welfare services provided by the government are largely treatment-based and under-funded. Overall, the welfare system fails to address the root causes of social welfare problems – and thus its offering does not actively seek to cause structural change required to move individuals out of poverty and lower levels of income inequality.

Driving policy change

To understand this situation, we need to look at the South African context in the early 1990s which paved the way for policy change in social welfare.

At that time, social workers, academics, civil society organisations (CSOs), bureaucrats, and politicians pushed for radical transformation in South Africa’s welfare sector, under the direction of its first democratic government.

Protagonists for change such as Francie Lund, Leila Patel, Geraldine Moleketi, and a host of CSOs (Black Sash, National Rural Women’s Movement, National Committee for the Rights of Children amongst others) envisioned and pursued a de-racialised welfare programme to reduce poverty and income inequality.

By the late 1990s, a means-tested Child Support Grant was implemented into South African welfare policy. Some of the factors that facilitated this include:

  • Credibility of leadership
  • Diversity of expertise and practical experience amongst those driving change
  • A robust, evidence-based approach to policy-making
  • Strong administrative capacity and confidence of politicians
  • A window of opportunity immediately after the ruling party, the African National Congress, came to power that welcomed innovation.
  • The involvement of CSOs and academia in policy formulation and implementation that created an urgency for policy change.

The White Paper that was published in 1997 however, committed the government to more than just a de-racialised grants system. It envisioned a welfare system based on cross-departmental collaboration that dealt with poverty alleviation, income redistribution and more broadly - inclusive growth.

Barriers to implementation

Since the launch of the 1997 White Paper for Social Welfare, which underpinned the changes to the welfare sector, a number of key people and organisations that were previously driving this change have left the government’s welfare sector.

Instead of the transformative change envisioned in the paper, today the Department of Social Development’s largest effort is through their significant grant system - and whilst social grants have played a significant role in stabilizing the income of the poor and lowering levels of poverty, the transition out of the welfare system is limited, and inequality remains persistently high.

The key barriers to implementing welfare changes today are:

The window of opportunity is unlike that which existed 20 years ago. Despite not achieving what it originally set out, South Africa’s social welfare system is considered one of its success stories for stabilizing the income of the poor - so there isn’t an urgency to change the system. The urgency in the past was to move from a racialised welfare system to one that is inclusive, which was indeed done very well. Today, there are too many people dependent on cash transfers and there is limited forward thinking to improve income mobility of poor households.

Policy making happens at a high level and is disengaged from what is happening on the ground. Participatory democracy was a strong theme in the White Paper and South Africa’s National Development Plan (2013) talks about active citizenship. However, avenues to broker active citizenship and involvement in policy-making are limited, particularly in the welfare sector.

Break-up of the CSO welfare sector. With the conclusion of apartheid, the interest of various communities, ethnic groups and organizations involved in welfare diverged. The CSO welfare sector met a shortage of funds and lack of central leadership which led to the deconstruction of CSOs and an erosion of the social capital built around their functioning. Government replaced some of the CSOs in welfare service delivery and their goals shifted to lobbying and monitoring government on behalf of citizens. However, the skills and experience required for such actions were lacking (von Holdt, 2002).

Technical expertise and innovation is limited within the bureaucracy, although the administrative capacity and infrastructure of the welfare system is well established. Local government could facilitate the conversation between community CSOs and higher ranks of government, but local government budgets are small, capacity is limited and this has not been designated within their mandate. CSOs find themselves in a tricky situation as they require funding from government but are also advocates for change of current fiscal practices.

What can we learn from South Africa's experience?

The White Paper for Social Welfare is currently being reviewed by the government, with a particular focus on institutional and capacity constraints. The hope is that we move to a welfare system driven by communities that are empowered to help themselves, but this is unlikely without a determined leadership and an evidence-based approach to policy-making.

We need champions, but cannot become dependent on them. Policy champions are unlikely to stay in tiers of government over a number of decades, but it is fundamentally important to maintain the foundations built by policy champions to ensure policy success that is focused on developmental, social welfare ideals.

Coordination in and between non-governmental stakeholders is key to affecting long term policy change – rather than short term capitulations. Since civil society participants, practitioners and academics strongly influenced and motivated these welfare policy changes in the past, their continued presence, collaboration and pressure is required to ensure that policy and those implementing it do not part from the initial urgency, sentiment, ideology and vigour employed when it was first conceived.

Capacity building within government departments is key. Implementing a developmental welfare system today requires a policy overhaul led by the Department of Social Development. This needs training, capacity-building and the use of monitoring and evaluation practices within the Department, as well as allowing for new champions to appear within.

The policy champions of the late nineties suggest that it is critical to strengthen the social network of support for households and communities that would prevent so many children being in the child care system in the first place. In the long term, this would mean that fewer individuals would require welfare services, lowering the cost of the system as it stands.

However, this requires a change in current policy as well as dedicated implementation of changes that occur. We need strong networks and engaging interactions between all stakeholders including government, CSOs and academics that are able to provide evidence to guide policy processes and ensure that when champions go away - and they will - the systems and process they support remain in place.

About the author

Aalia Cassim is at the Development Policy Research Unit of the University of Cape Town