The Growth and Emergence of the South African Nanny State

development agriculture unemployment
Wednesday, 16 November, 2011 - 09:42

South Africa has progressed in tackling many of the challenges it faces since the inception of democracy in 1994. However, unemployment and lack of services mean that we have to do more

The municipality governing the village I grew up in has a fantastic vision: “Together with communities and partners striving for sustainable livelihoods and economic growth for all”.

The area, now called Sakhisizwe, is part of a larger region of the Eastern Cape with a proud history dating back to the wars of dispossession, defiance against the Bantustan system, resistance against the imposition of Kaizer Daliwonga Matanzima as Paramount Chief, and playing a leading role in the liberation movements. The main clans are AmaQwathi, AmaGcina, AmaNdungwane and AmaHala. It boasts one of the largest rock art collections of the San people, who through their own dispossession and assimilation became part of these clans. 

People like Gwede Mantashe, Secretary General of the African National Congress; Ayanda Ntsaluba former Director General at the Department of Health and later International Relations and Cooperation, as well as Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza SC, to mention just a few, call this place home.

Sakhisizwe can be categorised as a B4 (largely rural with a low economic and revenue base) municipality. For inhabitants of this place, the promise of a better life for all remains far-fetched and elusive. Many households are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and unemployment. For an estimated population of 660 970 people and 167 560 households, basic infrastructure backlogs are: 

  • Water (39 percent);
  • Sanitation (51 percent);
  • Electricity (40 percent);
  • Refuse Removal (28 percent);
  • Road network (300km of gravel and approximately 62km of tarred surfaces).

The official unemployment figure is 36 percent. If persons who are economically active and unemployed, but not actively seeking employment are included, the figure goes up to 60 percent.

Two decades ago, almost without exception, any fit young man was guaranteed a job in the mines. The clan structure was a major source of referral, induction and mentorship in the mining setup.  If you did not work in the mines, you were involved in farming. Every family’s communal land was tilled with fences separating fields and grazing land. Households were self-sufficient with maize, wheat, pumpkins, and beans and in some areas, fruits (peaches and apples) with excess sold in the market. My grandfather for example, had more than 1 000 sheep and goats and more than 500 cattle. We milled our own wheat and maize. We made and sold our own cheese. We sold milk, amasi and pork. 

With this background and perhaps, a sense of nostalgia, two months ago, I asked my brother, and Headman of our village - Upper Indwana and his councillors, why our people are living in abject poverty. Their answers were frank and quite revealing.  They said it is because of two main reasons:

  • The mines have shed thousands of jobs in the last fifteen years;
  • Government programmes are breeding laziness and drunkards.

The first part is easy to contextualise. South Africa is no longer in the same class as mining countries such as Australia, Canada, Russia and Indonesia. These countries’ mining industries are growing at 15 to 17 percent, while that of South Africa has been shrinking by at least one percent every year in the last decade. Despite the popular myth, this has got nothing to do with the suspended African National Congress Youth League president Julius Malema. We are just not competitive in terms of management and labour. Beneficiation has been mentioned as a salvation by each successive administration, even before 1994. The New Growth Path alludes to the same aspirations.

The second part needs further elaboration. The ruling party is committed to a developmental state manifest through state intervention in a wide range of areas intended to conceptualise, initiate, drive and manage transformation of society. While the term is used glibly and without abandon, it is not clear how the South African concept of a developmental state is different, if at all, from a welfare state.

All government departments have one form or another of intervention. While they remain uncoordinated, most of them are intended to achieve the same goals. It is not possible to present all of them here, the following are selected randomly to illustrate the point:

Social Grants:

Almost 15.2 million South Africans, up from 2.5 million in 1998 receive social grants accounting for 10.9 percent of the total national budget. The figure does not include an additional two million eligible children who, due to administrative reasons, are not receiving child support grants. The figures are set to increase even further, in years to come as government raises the thresholds for the means test. Overall, social grants expenditure is projected to increase at an average annual rate of 10.6 percent over the next four years. Every family in my village is benefiting from one form or more than one form of a social grant.
Expanded Public Works:

Phase 2 of Expanded Public Works which covers the period 2009/10 – 2014/15 aims to create 4.5 million work opportunities for poor, unskilled and unemployed South Africans, not to mention its ‘Working For This or That’ extensions. The prevailing habit in my village is of men and women sleeping on the side of the road, pretending to be fixing the gravel roads. They wake up when they see an oncoming car.  When it’s cold, they don’t even bother. They collect the pay and are included in the national figures of people who are gaining skills through temporary work opportunities provided by the government.

Human Settlements:

South Africa is the only country in the world that provides free houses to its citizens.  The Department of Human Settlements has built three million houses since 1994. Despite this, there is a backlog of 2.3 million houses. When a mother gets a house, three to four of her children get to the waiting list. A significant number of people from the village have left the homesteads to stay in shanty towns in Khayelitsha, Cape Town and other townships in Gauteng, with no prospects of employment in sight.

Rural Development:

Up to now, the primary focus of the land reform process has been equitable land ownership among the country’s citizens. Where efforts were made to develop post-settlement strategies such as the Comprehensive Agricultural Support Programme (CASP) and the Settlement and Implementation Support Programme (SISP), there has been insufficient capacity within government for full scale implementation of these programmes. During the last ten years, South Africa has become a net exporter of farmers and a net importer of food.

As part of the 1994 celebrations, people at my village removed fences that used to separate fields from grazing lands. With the exception of a few households in the sub-villages of Upper Indwana, farming of any kind is now non-existent. To solve the problem, government has purchased white-owned farms in the region and settled people there. One of the new settlers is my uncle’s wife, who inherited everything my grandfather owned. She moved to Dordrecht with a herd of only 10 cattle from what took my grandfather a lifetime to build.  She has returned to the village with nothing.

Policy implications

Despite the picture painted above, we have achieved a lot since 1994. Real estate has mushroomed in the rural hinterland. Inequality between blacks and whites has decreased. It takes nine hours to arrive in Johannesburg and 10 hours to arrive in Cape Town. It used to take 18 and 20 hours respectively. Despite the quality, universal access to basic education is almost 100 percent. An imbizo is now announced via cellphone - progress.

There are many arguments for, and against the bulging welfare state.

It is argued that social grants are enshrined in our Constitution; the social security net promotes equity, social solidarity and justice. It is also claimed that the net is an effective redistribution and poverty-reduction mechanism. It is further argued that social grants are an effective economic stimuli in that every cent given to the poor is spent in South Africa, and most of it, on goods or services produced in the country.

It is also counter-argued that social grants are unaffordable and expensive to administer; that while race inequality has decreased as a result of social grants and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE), intra-race inequality among blacks has increased. It is also strongly argued that investment in consumption deprives the fiscus of needed resources for productive and enabling infrastructure investment such as roads, energy and telecommunications. Research presented by the University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor, Professor Max Price, indicates that the social security net has not lifted people above the poverty line because even if one person in a household receives a form of a grant, four or five others in the same family are not earning anything. As a result, per capita household income remains below the poverty line.

Interestingly, especially in the last month or so, there is now a growing realisation that the futility of a nanny state is not sustainable. Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale has said government must have a cut-off date on which it will stop building free houses for the poor. Sitting on the fence, President Jacob Zuma has acknowledged that while social grants are important for the alleviation of poverty, they are by no means a substitute for rural development and employment creation. Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has denounced them outright, saying social grants promote dependency. As early as 2008, former President Thabo Mbeki said that South Africans need to reduce dependence on social grants. He said, “We have to cultivate that sentiment among our people to say: I too have a responsibility to do something about my own development”.

While this might not be politically expedient, or politically correct, it is perhaps time to review the implications of the policies we have adopted since 1994, discard what does not work for the people and enhance what works.

Some pertinent case studies and policy questions are:

How did Malawi move from the African basket case to an African food basket within three years?  Why is Brazil’s Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) Programme regarded by the World Bank President and other admires, as “the best model of effective social policy”.

But most importantly, instead of chasing them away, what can we learn from the immigrant community - the Nigerians, Somalians, Chinese and Pakistanis? Mbeki had this to say about the observations of Nigerians when they first arrived in South Africa: “Nigerians want to know why are the streets empty? Don’t South Africans do business among themselves? What do they do? Anything?  Ah, they are waiting for government to give. They are waiting for government to deliver. We don’t do that in Nigeria. Once you put two Nigerians together, you have a market”.

Nigeria is projected to overtake South Africa as Africa’s largest economy by 2025. Meanwhile, men and women sit and drink at my village.

This is Part Two of a Four Part Series: Part One: Rules of Engagement; Part Three: Valuing Community Assets for Social Development ; Part Four: Putting it together – The Golden Triangle of Social Development.

- Andile Ncontsa is the CEO of Litha Communications ( In addition to communications and public relations, Litha consults on corporate social investment, stakeholder management, sustainability, dialogue and social mobilisation.

NGO Services

NGO Services

NGO Events