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Newsletter: From Evidence to Action

Child poverty & inequality in South Africa.

Poverty and inequality levels in South Africa are among the highest in the world. Despite the significant progress that South Africa has made in addressing the rights and needs of children, children still face formidable challenges. The large disparities in children’s access to essential services points to critical policy challenges that require a more accelerated drive to redress inequities from the past as well as confronting the substantial barriers that the poorest children still face. At every stage, poverty and inequality harm the life chances of children.

PAN: Children in the HSRC was formed in order to bring together the best available knowledge on the situation of children in South Africa, as well as to provide practical understanding and advise on the implementation and evaluation of policies and programmes to address themes such as child poverty and inequality. In Addition, the project seeks to promote networking among researchers, policy makers and practitioners, with the aim of creating a community of practice around key issues affecting children.

In light of the objectives stated above, PAN Children consulted Professor Servaas Van der Berg from Stellenbosch University a key figure in the production of the South African Human Rights Commission and UNICEF’s 2014 report titled Poverty traps and social exclusion among children in South Africa, famously known as The Poverty Traps report. Professor Van der Berg was requested to develop five policy briefs based on the Poverty Traps report. The policy briefs covered the following:

    • Education- every child must read by age 9; 
    • Poor childhood health condemning children to poverty for life;
    • Social and family influences trapping many children in poverty; 
    • How geography can trap children in poverty; 
    • How lack of assets affect child poverty and social exclusion.

The significance of the issues covered in the policy briefs is that they all operate in various degrees to keep children and their households in poverty. According to the report, evidence suggests the existence of persistent and deep-rooted child poverty in South Africa.

The advent of democracy in 1994 presented the government with an opportunity to change the trajectory of children’s rights. Both South African law and related policies, demonstrate high levels of commitment to the rights and wellbeing of children. These commitments to children are enshrined in the Constitution and the National Development Plan. These authoritative texts point to the importance of putting children first given their vulnerabilities and their inherent inability to take part in human rights discourse.

South Africa enjoys middle-income status and given the understanding that the country boasts progressive and state of the art policies, 22 years into democracy why is the nation still plagued by the double scourge of poverty and inequality? The government is constitutionally mandated to meet the children’s socio-economic rights as provided for in sections 28 and 29 of the Constitution. These rights place a more immediate obligation on government. These “basic” rights constitute a minimum core which the State is obliged to deliver as a priority.

Given the inter-generational complexities at play in situations of poverty in South Africa, the problem becomes: how do we deal effectively with cumulative disadvantages? Just think of the multiple vulnerabilities and exclusion that children face, for instance children with disabilities; migrant and refugee children; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) children; rural children; orphaned children; children living and working on the streets. Some of these vulnerabilities overlap e.g. picture a child with a disability in a rural area, trying to access an appropriate learning environment. Imagine the difficulties that child is faced with.

As a country it is imperative to always reflect on efforts taken to address children’s needs. With this in mind it is important to interrogate and discuss the issue of child poverty and inequality in South Africa. In March 2014 President Zuma launched South Africa’s 20 Year Review. This document was an attempt to look at lessons learnt and how to move forward. It was a good reflection. In the Review government looked at interventions and examined some of the outcomes of the work they did since 1994.

On the issue of basic services such as sanitation, water and electricity, the former homelands started off with a double disadvantage. Statistics show that we have not progressed as we ought to. Therefore, in terms of policy and interventions, what needs to be done?

The profile of children still takes the pre-1994 profile- black children being failed. It is mostly the rights of black children that are not being realized, a clear indication that the ‘one size fits all approach’ is not working.

Looking at children with disabilities, there is need to look at the Care Dependency Grant. When one looks at statistics of these children, there is no synergy with these and the number of children receiving CDG. We need to understand why such children are not accessing the grant. This is a considerable grey area.

There is a link between migration and child abandonment. There is a need to look at integrated services: children growing up in informal settlements are rendered more vulnerable to human rights violations. In short, there is no shortage of challenges plaguing South Africa’s children. The burning question is how do we effectively eliminate child poverty and reduce inequality? How do we address social exclusion?

There is an argument that South Africa has the best policies but the problem lies in implementation. There is often talk about what doesn’t work but some leading minds in the child rights sector argue this should stop and we should talk more about what works. It is argued by some that South Africa’s policies should be ASPIRATIONAL. One should look at what capacity and resources we have currently and in relation to our policies what is POSSIBLE to do. Furthermore it is said that the choices we make are political choices and they are about interests and interest groups, so none of this is value free or ideology free so we need to think about these challenges in this way.

Weak implementation being one of the major challenges in social development, some child rights experts are advocating for a better understanding of the underlying factors for weak implementation. They question whether implementation challenges are as a result of the following:

  • Organizational capacity,
  • Coordination- Within and across government departments,
  • Design of intergovernmental arrangements,
  • Leadership- Is everyone taking part i.e. society, government, NGOs etc
  • Accountability mechanisms

The poverty traps report was a very good opportunity to reflect on such issues and interrogate concerns pertaining to the systemic bottlenecks plaguing service delivery and policy implementation. The policy briefs by Professor Van der berg in particular gives stakeholders an opportunity to start thinking of aggressive ways to interrogate viable policy options dealing with poverty and inequality.

PAN: Children as a platform seeks to continue the conversation that the Human Rights Commission and UNICEF began on how South Africa can effectively address poverty and inequality. The value in having ‘consultational’ dialogues amongst key stakeholders to ensure meaningful engagement and interrogation of these stubborn social ills cannot be gainsaid.

PAN: Children continues to place emphasis on the value of continuing building on ongoing efforts that seek to mitigate some of the risks that children are faced with. Because we understand the value of pro-poor policies, the importance of bringing together the best available knowledge on the situation of children in South Africa, with a particular emphasis on the drivers and determinants of inequities in the fulfilment of child rights becomes an imperative. During the course of 2016 PAN Children in collaboration with its partners will host policy dialogues/roundtables based on each of the five policy briefs produced by Servaas Van der Berg. The idea is to facilitate continuous engagement and dialogue and thus increasing our wisdom on how to effectively deal with these cumulative disadvantages. Dates and details of these events will be shared on our website (see details below).

PAN: Children: For updates on the latest child rights and related policy issues visit the Policy Action Network: Children at