In mid-1999, following the election, the new president, Mbeki, appointed a new Minister of Social Welfare, Zola Skweyiya. Skweyiya was considerably older than his predecessor (he was born in 1942) and came from a rather different background. First, he knew from personal experience what it meant to go to bed without supper or to go to school without breakfast.Footnote 13 Second, he was immersed in the African mission-educated, Christian political tradition that was liberal on many issues but paternalistically conservative on others. His schooling had concluded at the elite Lovedale College—established by missionaries more than a century earlier—where he overlapped with Thabo Mbeki. He went on to the University of Fort Hare before following Mbeki into exile. Like Mbeki, Skweyiya did not return to South Africa until 1990. Whilst in exile he studied law (completing a PhD in communist East Germany) and held a series of largely diplomatic posts for the ANC as well as setting up its Legal and Constitutional Affairs Department. Both before and after 1990 he represented the ANC at the UN Commission for Human Rights. He was firmly part of the ANC’s “nationalist”, non-Communist wing. In 1994, Mandela appointed him minister of Public Service and Administration. In 1999, his old friend Mbeki moved him to the Ministry of Social Welfare.
At the time of his appointment as minister of Social Welfare in 1999, fewer than 3 million grants were paid monthly. When he stepped down, ten years later, about 13 million grants were paid monthly—an increase of an average of 1 million grants per annum over Skweyiya’s ten years as minister. Over the same period, expenditure on grant payments approximately trebled, in real terms (i.e. taking inflation into account). Whilst economic growth was strong across much of this period, expenditure also grew significantly in relation to GDP. As subsequent studies made clear, this expansion of social assistance played a major part in the slow reduction of income poverty (van der Berg et al. 2006; Leibbrandt et al. 2010).
This future expansion of social assistance was not suggested in Skweyiya’s first comments after becoming minister. He initially seemed to take up where Fraser-Moleketi had left off. His Department continued to emphasise “the promotion of self-reliance to reduce dependency on … social grants” (South Africa 1999: 6) and was renamed the Department of Social Development. It adopted a “Ten Point Plan” that listed its priorities, in apparent order of importance: the first priority was “restoring the ethics of care and human development in all welfare programmes” (which entailed “the rebuilding of families and communities”); the second was “developing and implementing an integrated poverty eradication strategy”; only third did the Plan list social security (South Africa 2000).
In early 2000, however, Skweyiya struck a different note in his first major speech as Minister of Social Welfare. Skweyiya began by quoting President Mbeki on the importance of a “humane and people-centred society”.Footnote 14 He went on to describe some of what he had learnt over the past year whilst travelling around South Africa:
I met the grandmother in the rural village of Inanda caring for a HIV-positive daughter, the girl-child taken from school to care for her siblings, and the single mother who cannot find a job. I saw the pain on the face of a young child who had been abused and raped in Claremont near Durban. I heard the frustration of a father with disability who wants to learn new skills in Maokeng, Kroonstad, but has nowhere to turn to. I listened to the anguish of the devastating effect of the loss of a pension or grant in poor families.Footnote 15
He concluded that “much more needs to be done” to reverse the degradation and marginalisation of the poor.Footnote 16 Through his “encounters” with the poor, Skweyiya learnt something that researchers subsequently confirmed: Social grants were very important in sustaining dignity (see, especially, Wright et al. 2014, 2015).
The chairman of the parliamentary portfolio committee, Saloojee, followed Skweyiya’s lead, striking a more positive tone. He referred explicitly to the need to restore “the dignity of all of our people” through poverty reduction—and then emphasised repeatedly the importance of social grants to the relief of poverty. He lamented the lack of an “integrated poverty strategy” but envisaged an expansion of social assistance, especially through the Child Support Grant. “The initial strategy for targeting our country’s poorest children is to be followed by broader coverage, to ultimately include all the country’s poor”, he said. “If these children go hungry and have parents with no visible means of support, we have failed these children by not providing them with support to ensure their protection and development”.Footnote 17 The government would be guided by the recommendations of a Committee of Inquiry (to be chaired by Professor Viviene Taylor) appointed to examine what might be entailed in a more comprehensive system of social security.
In comparison with the five years of the Mandela presidency, this was an extraordinary embrace of social assistance. It was dressed up in the discourse of dignity that Mandela (and his then vice-president, Mbeki) had used previously, but the discussion of social assistance gave this discourse new substance. In the late 1990s the discourse of dignity had been embedded in South Africa’s new Constitution (in 1996) and in subsequent constitutional jurisprudence, giving the discourse heightened prominence and legitimacy. The 1996 constitution recognised respect for a person’s “inherent dignity” as one of the founding values underpinning the new constitutional order. This represented a “stark and dramatic” break with the apartheid past (as then Chief Justice Mahomed put it in 1998, quoted in Chaskalson 2000: 193). As Constitutional Court Justice O’Regan elaborated in 1995:
Respect for the dignity of all human beings is particularly important in South Africa. For apartheid was a denial of a common humanity. Black people were refused respect and dignity and thereby the dignity of all South Africans was diminished. The new Constitution rejects this past and affirms the equal worth of all South Africans. Thus recognition and protection is the touchstone of the new political order and is fundamental to the new Constitution. (quoted in Chaskalson 2010: 1381)
O’Regan wrote this in connection to capital punishment, which the Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional. Dignity was central also to judgements on issues such as corporal punishment and gay marriage. But dignity had very clear relevance also to the interpretation of social and economic rights, as Arthur Chaskalson (the then president of the Constitutional Court and later also Chief Justice) acknowledged explicitly. Section 27 of the Constitution enshrined “the right to have access to … social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependents, appropriate social assistance”; it committed the state to taking “reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realization” of this right. As Chaskalson commented in 2000: “These rights are rooted in respect for human dignity, for how can there be dignity in a life lived without access to housing, health care, food, water or in the case of persons unable to support themselves, without appropriate assistance?” Chaskalson went on to explain that the Constitution did not “contemplate” complete equality of goods or wealth. Rather, it required the state “to show respect and concern” for those citizens whose basic needs were not being met at the same time as taking into account “the general interests of the community concerning the application of resources”, through taking “reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation” of access to the goods that were minimally necessary for human dignity (Chaskalson 2000).
Skweyiya’s concern for the dignity of the poor framed his positive attitude towards social grants. In 2001, he described social assistance as “the Government’s primary investment in poverty alleviation” (emphasis added). He added that, whilst “the current grant amounts are not sufficient to address large-scale poverty, deprivation and inequality in South Africa”, the government would “continue to increase spending on social assistance as resource constraints allow”.Footnote 18 His department’s Annual Report for 2001 similarly identified social security as—for the first time—its primary priority, acknowledging that its developmental training programme for unemployed women had floundered (South Africa 2001: 9).
This new perspective was far from hegemonic, however, as soon became clear in the debate over the Taylor Committee’s report. In its somewhat chaotic report, completed in early 2002, the Taylor Committee endorsed the hegemonic developmental approach to “social protection”: public health, education and other services were necessary to enhance the capabilities of the poor. In the short term, however, the Committee recommended that the holes in the existing safety net be filled through the extension of the Child Support Grant to the age of 18 and then the introduction of a modest “basic income grant” for all adults (South Africa 2002). Skweyiya himself initially seemed favourable. But he faced strong opposition within the ANC leadership and government. The powerful government spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe reiterated the mantra that able-bodied adults should not receive “handouts” but instead should be helped to “enjoy the opportunity, the dignity and the rewards of work”. The government would not support a basic income grant, he said, because it had a rather different “philosophy”.Footnote 19
The proposed basic income grant never attracted significant support within the ANC leadership: grants for unemployed adults were routinely denounced as “handouts”. Pensions for the elderly were never really questioned (although the government did resist lowering the age at which men became eligible for old-age pensions). The disability grant became more controversial over time, with ANC MPs voicing concerns that able-bodied people were receiving grants or, even, that they were contracting HIV in order to access grants (Kelly 2013). The most controversial issue, however, was the Child Support Grant, paid mostly to poor mothers. Opponents argued either that it was not affordable or that it encouraged undesirable behaviour. The question of affordability brought Skweyiya into conflict with, especially, the powerful Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel. By challenging the supposed unaffordability of expanded grants, rather than contesting the philosophy, Skweyiya put Manuel on the defensive:
The ANC will not be bamboozled into doing things that it knows are not possible. We would like to give each and everybody that basic income grant. We would like to ensure that each and every family eats every night. The basic question is, how do we do that? We have a problem here. We introduced the child support grant to be given to each and every child under the age of seven … Up to the present moment half a million children are still not getting that. The money is there, but the question is how to bring it to the people.Footnote 20
Under pressure, the government did announce that the age limit for Child Support Grants would be raised (in phases, between 2003 and 2005) from a child’s 7th birthday to the child’s 14th birthday.Footnote 21 Although President Mbeki himself made this announcement in 2003, he subsequently seemed less than enthusiastic. One year later, in his 2004 State of the Nation Address, he pointedly did not include social grants in his list of the ANC government’s achievements since 1994. Instead, he referred to the need to “create the conditions … to reduce the numbers of our people dependent on social grants”.Footnote 22 The ANC did decide, however, to emphasise strongly the rising number of social grants in its campaign for the country’s third democratic general election in April 2004—although it did not promise any significant expansion of social grants, emphasising instead the prospect of one million new “job opportunities” through the workfare programme (ANC 2004). Following the elections, Mbeki delivered a second State of the Nation Address. Now he did refer to the consolidation of a “social security net”. But he also reiterated the imperative of reducing dependency on social grants, declaring that “a society in which large sections depend on social welfare cannot sustain its development”.Footnote 23 That same year the government launched its new, “Expanded” Public Works Programme, to provide a small proportion of unemployed people with some of the “dignity of work”—a concept with deep roots in the ANC and South Africa (Barchiesi 2011; Ferguson 2015)—and, through enhancing skills and the experience of work, “reduce, over time, the proportion of our people who subsist solely on social grants”.Footnote 24
Over the following years, Skweyiya balanced the defence of selective social assistance—for deserving categories of poor people—with the kind of developmental rhetoric that had prevailed prior to 2000. In a 2005 debate, he emphasised that his department had “sought to ensure the provision of comprehensive social protections services against vulnerability and poverty to as many deserving people as possible”, including through expanded social assistance programmes. At the same time, he trotted out an old denunciation of fraud. His department had offered indemnity to anyone who came forward and admitted to receiving a grant illegally. A total of 30,000 people had done so, resulting in considerable savings. But “we are not satisfied with the result of the campaign” because “more people should have come forward”. Now, the law would be enforced, beginning with public servants and the syndicates behind fraud. Also, he suggested, the sustainability of the social protection system depended on poor people taking advantage of improved economic opportunities so as to become less dependent on the state.Footnote 25
Skweyiya’s message may have been mixed but was far more positive about social grants than many of his colleagues in the ANC. One ANC MP invoked the need for “moral regeneration” whilst declaring that modest grants would merely create dependency. “The ANC does not believe that it was supposed to create a South Africa where people would depend on the state for food, without opportunities for development”, he proclaimed, speaking in Zulu; “it is not part of the African culture to wait to be fed instead of doing things on your own”.Footnote 26 Another ANC MP, reinforced this point:
Our people are not waiting for handouts. The budget is such that people can provide for themselves. People have heeded the call: ‘Wake up and do it yourself”. In this budget we are trying to support them in their efforts to become independent. … In the rural areas people plough and do different kinds of job to sustain a living.
In response to opposition parties’ rhetorical support for the expansion of social assistance through some kind of basic income grant, this ANC MP declared that “the basic income grant that [an opposition MP] is referring to is not the solution for the needs of the people. People have their own way of living, not by getting handouts”.Footnote 27 Skweyiya felt the need to rebut his own colleague, noting that “it had been proved beyond any reasonable doubt” that grants did not create a culture of dependency (see also Surrender et al. 2010; Ferguson 2015). He also took care to point out that the government’s caution was not because ANC leaders were “scrooges”, but rather because of resource constraints.Footnote 28
Skweyiya successfully legitimated social grants for selected categories of deserving poor, not for the unemployed (the dreaded “handouts”). He did not do away entirely with the earlier developmentalist doctrine. His Department for Social Development initiated a new developmental programme (Gwebindlala) to “provide income support while simultaneously developing the human capital of beneficiaries through skills development and job-placement services”.Footnote 29 This rhetoric was not unlike the rhetoric associated with the welfare state in Europe and elsewhere, except that in the South African context programmes like this provided support and services for very few people, whilst a very large number of people received no income support at all and many others received very modest income support. The developmentalist discourse appealed to the ANC’s more conservative MPs, one of whom commented that “maintaining our lives through charity is not black people’s way of living … Whenever we found ourselves in situations beyond our control, we would be given a cow. Although one would not get ownership of the cow, one would be able to get milk and plough the fields”.Footnote 30
The distinction between those poor who deserved grants (i.e. the elderly, disabled, children and caregivers) and those who needed to be put to work meant that government documents both celebrated and criticised grants. A discussion document released in early 2007 emphasised the “dignity of work”. It criticised social grants that lacked any mechanism for helping beneficiaries to find work and explicitly advocated more efforts to promote the kinds of employment appropriate for people with minor disabilities (and currently receiving disability grants). The document advocated “active labour market measures, skills development programmes, special employment and labour-intensive development programmes and labour-intensive government services”, as well as further “consideration” of an “aggressive expansion” of public works programmes: “the drive to get all South Africans working when they are able to do so must become a central preoccupation” (South Africa 2006a).Footnote 31 Similarly, the Department of Social Development’s “Strategic Plan” for 2006–2010 referred to its continuing commitment to a “paradigm shift” from a welfarist approach to “developmental welfare” (South Africa 2006b). The ANC’s 2007 policy discussion document on “social transformation” also emphasised the “dignity of work” and the importance of public works programmes as an alternative to social assistance. Arguing (rather unclearly) against a basic income grant, the ANC suggests that discussion should take place “in the context of our challenges as a developmental state rather than against the ideological backdrop of a welfare state” (ANC 2007: 3, emphasis added). The primary emphasis of the “attack on poverty” should entail empowering people “to take themselves out of poverty”. The social safety net should be limited to the protection of “the most vulnerable in our society” (ibid: 2), implying specific groups of deserving poor rather than the poor in general.
The government’s overall approach thus remained resolutely developmental: poverty reduction required simply that the benefits of economic growth be “shared”. In early 2006, the government launched its Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (AsgiSA). This envisaged that poverty and unemployment rates would be reduced by one half through increasing the economic growth rate (to 6 per cent p.a.) and sharing growth, primarily through absorbing more labour into the “mainstream economy”. Key elements of the plan included increased public investment in infrastructure, accelerated skill development and reducing the regulatory burden on small- and medium-sized businesses (South Africa 2005). Whilst economic growth rates remained strong up to the global economic crisis of 2008–2009, the benefits were not shared widely: wages rose but employment in the formal economy remained stagnant.
Skweyiya recognised that he needed to rebut the lingering distaste for social grants among many of his ANC colleagues, which they often dressed up in their commitment to developmentalism. Skweyiya’s solution was to commission research that would provide the data to undermine his colleagues’ objections. The first of the ensuing reports, completed in late 2006 and presented to Cabinet, dispelled “assertions that our social assistance programme encourages teenage pregnancies, that children are fostered for the purpose of accessing grants, and that people with disability will harm themselves in order to continue accessing social grants” (as Skweyiya reported to Parliament in 2007).Footnote 32 Further reports examined the effects of grants on poverty alleviation and development, the benefits of raising the age limit on the Child Grant, the means-test and conditions on grants.
These reports did not persuade all ANC leaders that social grants should be expanded further. At a national conference in December 2007, the ANC resolved that the Child Grant age limit be “gradually extended to eighteen years” and the age threshold for men to receive the old-age pension be reduced to sixty years. But the ANC resolved also that “grants must not create dependency and thus must be linked to economic activity” (ANC 2007). In his State of the Nation Address at the beginning of 2008, President Mbeki—who had been defeated by his rival Jacob Zuma in the contest for the presidency of the party at the December conference—referred to the age threshold for pensions but pointedly did not mention the Child Grant. When, a few days later, Skweyiya told the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee and then announced in a press briefing that the age limit for the Child Grant would be increased to 18 years, this was almost immediately contradicted by the minister of Finance.
Less than a year later, however, the government confirmed that the age limit would be raised. ANC leaders (including the Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel) attributed the government’s shift to the “compelling evidence” in “recent research” that the Child Grant had reduced child poverty. He (and interim President Motlanthe in his 2009 “State of the Nation Address”) seems to have been referring not to the research commissioned by Skweyiya but to research commissioned by the Treasury that attributed the decline in income poverty (and child hunger) in the early 2000s to the Child Grant.
Unsurprisingly, ANC leaders did not draw attention to two other factors: factional politics within the ANC combined with the imminence of the 2009 elections. In late 2007, an eclectic coalition supported Jacob Zuma and ousted Mbeki as party leader; one year later the coalition ousted Mbeki as president of the country. At the time this was widely interpreted as a “shift to the left” within the ANC (e.g. Proudlock 2011: 154; and generally Booysen 2011). The new leadership proved to be more opportunistic than left wing. The decision to raise the Child Grant age limit—which was not made until almost one year after the pro-Zuma coalition secured control over the ANC—seems to have been due more to the sidelining of Mbeki personally and electoral opportunism. The ANC in 2009 faced a resurgent parliamentary opposition (comprising both the Democratic Alliance, supported largely by racial minorities, and the new Congress of the People led by Mbeki supporters who defected from the ANC) and widespread extra-parliamentary protests (the so-called “rebellion of the poor”—Alexander 2010). Under Zuma, the ANC sought to project itself as a party that had both achieved much hitherto and was now regenerated under new leadership (Beresford 2015; Booysen 2011). Crucially, the “new” ANC needed to demonstrate that the government was doing something new and positive to reduce poverty. Given that most of the other political parties were calling for the Child Grant age limit to be raised, the ANC chose to emphasise in its election manifesto that its expansion of social grants had “pushed back the frontiers of poverty” (ANC 2009).
More generally, the courts and civil society activists had transformed the normative and discursive context. Activists and the courts rarely agreed on precisely how social and economic rights should be operationalised, but they concurred, for the most part, on the underlying understanding of “dignity” and community, rooted in a Kantian moral philosophy. They thus continued to strengthen and legitimate the alternative discourse around social grants adopted (at least sometimes) by Skweyiya. The strongest judicial statement of this was in two cases in which the Constitutional Court ordered the government to pay pensions and grants to legally resident non-citizens on the same basis as citizens. In one of these judgements, Justice Mokgoro emphasised the constitutional commitment to building a “caring society”. Permanently resident non-citizens should not be abandoned “to destitution if they fall upon hard times”; the state should not force them into “relationships of dependency upon families, friends and the community in which they live” (Mokgoro 2004). The government resisted legal efforts to expand social assistance programmes. Officials in Skweyiya’s own department filed affidavits opposing cases brought by civil society activists to expand social grants. Moreover, the courts themselves were generally reluctant to push the executive too far or too fast, especially when policy shifts had major financial implications. In a series of major cases, the courts decided that the government was not obliged to provide very expensive healthcare or housing for all, nor to extend old age pensions or child grants. In a case that provoked the ire of civil society activists, the Constitutional Court decided unanimously against determining any “minimum core” of public services that citizens could claim under the constitution (see, e.g. Langford et al. 2013). But the courts ensured that the experience of poverty continued to be viewed as an indignity that society had to address. As one legal scholar put it, drawing on the work of American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, “conditions of poverty are not a reflection of the moral blameworthiness of groups experiencing poverty rather they reflect how we as a society have failed to value human dignity”. Respect for human dignity requires “redressing the social and economic conditions of those whose capacity for development and agency is stunted by poverty”—and accepting shared responsibility to enable the poor to live as equal members of society (Liebenberg 2005: 12–14).
Skweyiya’s complex defence of social grants for deserving categories of poor people but preference for job creation for able-bodied adults entailed an understanding of “social citizenship” and solidarity that accorded with popular opinion and norms. Quantitative and qualitative evidence suggested that most South Africans shared a strong sense that a large number of people were deserving of the support of society as a whole. Almost all South Africans concurred that differences in income (as well as differences in wages among working people specifically) were too large, and that the government should redistribute from rich to poor (Roberts 2014). Most South Africans, without regard to race or class, not only supported the principle of tax-financed pensions for the elderly but believed that the value of the pension should be increased (even if it meant that they themselves paid higher taxes). Most South Africans also included in the “deserving poor” people who were unable to work because they were disabled or sick, or who were caring for children or the elderly (Seekings 2007, 2010). There was even some evidence that people believed that the unemployed had some “right” to some kind of support (e.g. CASE 2005; Roberts 2014). At the same time, there was widespread scepticism about social grants for unemployed adults and outright condemnation of grant recipients who “misspent” their grants (e.g. on alcohol) (Seekings 2007; Dawson and Fouksman 2020).