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Monday, August 30, 2010

The War on Poverty - Another Programme Wasted!


The "War on Poverty" programme is supposed to be one of the major initiatives of President Zuma's office. It is spearheaded by the Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe. Its key strategy is "community profiling". In theory this involves compiling a detailed survey of each household in a community, so that the state can target its interventions with the purpose of enhancing the capacity of households to move out of poverty and earn a living. (I wonder when they’re coming to visit mine!)


Mr Motlanthe invited the leader of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, to visit four ‘impoverished’ households, so that she could see how the "War on Poverty" programme worked in practice. One would think that the four households chosen for this official visit would be perfect examples of families living on the brink of poverty, but it is obvious that someone in government did not do their homework properly – (as usual!)

The following excerpt is from an article by Helen Zille, which she compiled after her visits to these households, and also after she had attended an assembly of about 3,000 people on the same day:

“I assumed that the families we visited (each living in an RDP house) were carefully selected. So I was amazed to find that three out of the four had extreme substance abuse problems. In two of the houses, the adults were so drunk by mid-morning that they could not participate meaningfully in a conversation. In the third house, the adults (including a pregnant woman) openly conceded that they were under the influence of marijuana. As Rastafarians they contended that smoking "ganja" was integral to their religion.

It was quite apparent, in all three homes, that no intervention would increase the capability of the families to move out of poverty until their addiction problems were addressed. But their "community profile" did not contain any reference to substance abuse.


I could unpack the "profiles" of any one of the families (as well as the proposed interventions) to show how counter-productive the present approach to fighting poverty is. I have chosen one of them (to protect the family's identity I will call them "Dlamini", which is not their real name). Mr Dlamini was so drunk he could not stand on his feet and kept referring to me as "baby". His wife was also drunk. The family's source of income is Mrs Dlamini's "disability grant". It was clearly a context of chronic alcoholism.

I consulted the family's "profile". It listed Mr Dlamini's skills as: "brick-laying, painting, walls, welding, carpentry." This was followed by a list of state interventions required to support him moving out of poverty. It notes: "needs assistance in fixing cracks in RDP house."

Here was a man with all the skills required to fix his wall. But the state was instructing a local government department to send someone else to do so, for the ostensible purpose of enabling the Dlamini family to escape poverty! To be sure, he needed the assistance, not because he lacked the skills, but because he could not stand up.


This made the other proposal on his "profile form" even more ironic. It instructed the department of Economic Development to assist Mr Dlamini start his own business to utilize his skills.

The form also lists a daughter in the house as requiring access to bursaries and help with school admission. This sounded like a sensible intervention that could enhance the family's capacity to move out of poverty. When I enquired about the daughter, it transpired that she had moved away to live in Oudtshoorn. I concluded that this was the most sensible thing she could have done, on her own initiative, to escape a situation that would inevitably destroy her opportunities.

Overall, my conclusion was that the "community profile" of this family was entirely useless. It had cost a lot of money to compile, and would cost even more to "follow-up" and would predictably have no beneficial consequence at all for the "war on poverty". The other "profiles" were equally unhelpful.


Apart from the families in KwaNokuthula, we visited families in other areas as well.
At the end of the day, I concluded the following:

  1. A common feature of all the families in dire poverty was the absence of a functional father figure.
  2. Many had an obvious, and severe, substance abuse problem.
  3. A significant number of family units comprised grandmothers looking after their grandchildren, either because the mothers had died or because the mothers were teenagers.
I concluded that the state was playing an important role in alleviating the extreme deprivation of these families through the provision of RDP houses, free medical treatment (typically anti-retrovirals) and state grants.

Each family we visited asked for additional grants or food parcels as their proposed method of moving out of poverty.

A grandmother told me she had been to the doctor many times, in an attempt to qualify for a disability grant, but each time the doctor had declared her fit to work. She could not work because she had to look after her grandchildren after their mother had died of AIDS. The father could not be traced. One of the children was HIV positive and very sickly. It was heart breaking to see this fragile little girl, slumped in a chair. She received medication and nutrition from the clinic. She was living in a shack because her granny had already been allocated an RDP house in another province and could not get a second one.


Another woman confronted me in the street, in a state of extreme intoxication, demanding to know how I expected her to raise her child on a grant of R250. When I asked her where the child's father was, she dismissed my question as entirely irrelevant and told me she intended to have another child to receive an additional grant. There was no point trying to reason with her.

After the door-to-door visits Deputy President Motlanthe led the delegation in addressing a large rally of about 3,000 people in a huge marquee. I used the opportunity to talk bluntly about some of the "unmentionable" causes of poverty: teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, the spread of HIV through unprotected sex, the failure of many fathers to take responsibility for their children. I said that if we were to wage a real and effective "War on Poverty" we would have to be honest about these issues and devise effective strategies to address them. This would require both the government and individuals to take responsibility. The current approach was entrenching poverty and dependence, not eradicating it.

I also reflected on how much more productively the millions spent on the rally might have been spent if they had been used for bursaries for poor children to attend good schools.

When the master of ceremonies moved the vote of thanks for the day's proceedings, I was struck by a final irony. The major corporate sponsor of the event was none other than South African Breweries. Go figure.”


This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance, August 27 2010. The article has been shortened for purposes of this posting. Click here for the complete article.



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