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United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)
United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)

Gender, welfare and the developmental state in South Africa

Shireen Hassim1

University of the Witwatersrand

May 2005

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Mainstream welfare state literature identifies four welfare state regimes: liberal, social democratic, corporatist and state socialist. More recently, a fifth category ha emerged: the developmental welfare state. As with research on Esping-Andersen’s categorization of ‘three worlds of welfare capitalism’, early research on developmental social policy is revealing enormous variants within this category as well (Mkandawire, 2004). Feminist studies of developmental welfare are poorly developed, and thus far we have very few analyses of how gender is conceptualized. Yet, like other welfare state regimes, developmental states are regulatory in nature: they ascribe meaning to the social category of gender and create a normative framework within which needs are adjudicated and considered to be worthy of attention. While welfare states in the north traditionally re-defined the relationship between work and family, developmental states operating in the context of informalisation of labour markets re-draw the boundaries between and responsibilities of state, community, families and individuals. Analyses of developmental states have focused on the types of need that ought to be prioritized, and the extent to which these needs could be satisfied within a range of fiscal and global constraints. However, there has been less attention to the ways in which developmental states interpret needs and particularly to the gendered nature of needs interpretation.

South Africa has explicitly adopted the approach of developmental welfare – indeed it is regularly described as ‘probably the developing world’s largest and most generous welfare state’.2 Unusually, South African policy frameworks are underpinned by very strong formal commitments to gender equality. It thus provides a useful case study for the examination of the gendered nature of developmental welfare. In this chapter, I consider the impact of processes of democratization on the structure and ideology of welfare institutions in the post-apartheid. I analyse the extent to which these processes have expanded women’s citizenship entitlements. Has democratization shifted the nature of state regulation and conceptions of need and entitlement? How are interpretations of need concretely manifested in policies and programmes? I argue that while women have made enormous strides in gaining recognition for their particular political disadvantages, there has been slower translation of political rights into social rights. The welfare system remains constrained by narrow conceptions of the state and by distrust of rights-based demands on state resources. These have impacted on the extent to which social inequalities of gender are eroded by the democratic state.

Social rights and gender equality have both been conceived as integral to citizenship in democratic South Africa. The Constitution imposes particular responsibilities on government to address socio-economic inequalities as part of a progressive realization of human rights and in ways that erode inequalities of gender in addition to inequalities of race.3 The constitutional obligations are enacted by the creation of an institutional framework (the national machinery for women4) to ensure the inclusion of gender equality concerns in policy formulation. For women, the emphasis on citizenship in the transition to democracy was significant in creating a framework for women to articulate claims on the state on the basis of their individual entitlements rather than on the basis of their status as mothers or tribal subjects. Since 1994, South Africa has consistently been among the highest performers in the world in terms of the numbers of women elected to political office.

This new framework created the expectation that the expansion of citizenship rights to include social rights and the increased participation of women in political decision-making would result in greater attention to gender inequalities. However, South Africa has performed significantly better in improving women’s political position than it has in improving women’s economic position in the ten years since the inception of democracy. On the Gender and Development Index of the United Nations, South Africa ranks 90th out of 144 countries. Clearly, political presence does not necessarily that poor women’s interests will be adequately addressed in economic and social policy.

Poor women are in many respects the most vulnerable citizens in South Africa. Statistics South Africa’s labour force study in 2003 showed that women on the whole had lower incomes, higher employment rates and less access to assets than men.5 African women make up 42% of the workforce but only 30% of the employed population. Young African women are even worse off, with African women under the age of 30 facing an unemployment rate of 75%. Those women who are employed find themselves in the worst paid sectors of the labour market, notably in domestic and retail work. In 2003, 96% of domestic workers were black (i.e. African, Indian and Coloured) women and 93% of these workers earned under R1000 (approximately USD180) per month.6 African rural women are the poorest category of citizens: in 1997 65% of African female-headed households in rural areas were poor compared to 54% of male-headed households.7 At 29.4%, the mortality rate among African women was more than twice that of white women in 1994 (11.5%).8 It has been estimated that 53% of South Africans, including 60% of the country’s children, live in households with the lowest per capita consumption.9 On the United Nations’ Gender and Development Index, even though women and men had comparable school enrollment and adult literacy ratios, men earned more than twice women’s earnings.10

These gender vulnerabilities are compounded by the HIV/AIDs pandemic. African women are most vulnerable to HIV infection, more women than men are HIV positive and women are likely to become more infected at a younger age than men (Albertyn, 2003). The pandemic imposes additional burdens on women in their roles as primary carers of family members who are HIV positive. These caring tasks, moreover, have to be performed in the context of poor basic services such as the availability of clean water, electricity and modern sanitation.11 Women have borne the brunt of the labour associated with the tasks of fetching water and maintaining hygiene.12 A Kaiser Family Foundation study of households affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic found that 68% of the caregivers in the households surveyed were female, 7% younger than 18 years and 23% older than 60 years.13 The epidemic is also likely to have long-term impacts on areas where South Africa performs relatively well currently such as school enrolment of young girls. The Kaiser Family Foundation study found that almost 10% of girls were out of school, compared to 5% of boys in similar situations.14 Although this is not solely attributable to the pressures of caring for sick family members (other reasons included lack of money for uniforms, books and school fees and pregnancy), the expectation that girls and women should be the primary carers is likely to affect the Gender and Development Index measures for South Africa even more negatively over time.

  1. I should like to thank Beth Goldblatt for many hours of debate about gender and welfare in South Africa, and for her critical reading of earlier versions of this paper.
  2. Ann Bernstein, “Let the market rule in welfare” Business Day 4 May 2005.
  3. Sandra Liebenberg, “Social security and human rights: Current issues,” in Economic and Social Rights in South Africa Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1998).
  4. This term is part of United Nations jargon. Despite its clumsiness and its technocratic connotations, I retain it here because it is the common phrase used in South Africa.
  5. Neva Seidman Makgetla, Women and the economy in south Africa,, p. 2.
  6. Makgetla, p.7.
  7. Ibid., 40.
  8. Ibid., 41.
  9. Michael Samson, 2002, p.71.
  10. Debbie Budlender, Women and poverty,, p. 10.
  11. African National Congress, The Reconstruction and Development Programme, Johannesburg: Umanyano Publications, 1995, 17-18.
  12. Baden, Hassim and Meintjes, 45.
  13. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2002, “Hitting home: how households cope with the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic”, October, p.4.
  14. Kaiser Family Foundation, p.2.

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