THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC, AND the lockdown it gave rise to, were unprecedented in South Africa’s recent history. So too was the devastation wrought on people’s lives and worlds. “Building back better” is a phrase that runs like a hopeful thread through South Africa’s post-lockdown recovery plans. It attempts to look forward to an emergent world of possibility – to something different, something exceeding what we once had. But which sectors of the economy are to be built back better? How have the needs of these sectors been defined and accommodated by the various economic stimulus plans? And who stands to benefit from these plans most?
The focus of this article is the care economy. This is the sector responsible for the provision of care and services, both paid and unpaid, that enable the nurturing and reproduction of current and future populations. Just how vital this economy is to human well-being was made abundantly clear by the Covid-19 pandemic. It took the form of the health care offered to those who were ill, as well as the increased responsibilities for childcare placed on parents (and women in particular) during the lockdown.
The NGO sector in South Africa plays a significant role in this economy. It also employs a large percentage of women -estimated at 69% of its workforce in 2017. The lockdown had a disproportionate impact on women’s employment and incomes. So, if we examine how the NGO care economy has been factored into economic recovery plans, it will also tell us something about how gender has been factored into those plans.
But a bit of background is required first to understand some of the ways the lockdown affected the care economy occupied by NGO social care services. Let’s take the example of domestic violence shelters.
Funding domestic violence shelters
NPOs and the Department of Social Development (DSD) both provide social care services. This is an arrangement that dates back to the 1930s and the establishment of the country’s first department of welfare. As NPO services fulfil the mandate of the state, they are subsidised by DSD – as of August 2018, reportedly 16,635 NGOs were subsidised to provide some form of social service.
As a subsidy does not cover the full costs of any service, NGOs are expected to raise the balance of their funds elsewhere. Their usual fund-raising activities, such as golf days and other events, were made impossible by the conditions of the lockdown. Donations by companies and others evaporated almost completely, either because they were themselves battered by the lockdown or because they had contributed their available monies to the Solidarity Fund. Measures aimed at mitigating the economic impact of the lockdown, such as the Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TERS), were unsuited to their specific circumstances – NGO staff were, in theory, employed and awaiting their subsidies. The National Shelter Movement (NSM) is an umbrella body for 78 shelters across the country. The sector provides a case study in leadership and survival during this period.
GBV, shelters and the pandemic
There was considerable political rhetoric around the “second pandemic” of gender-based violence and shelters were identified as essential services. So they could reasonably have expected the government to provide additional assistance to cope with the anticipated influx of women and their children. No such assistance arrived. Instead, shelters were faced with a host of additional, unplanned costs not covered by their subsidies.
Support came instead from the private sector. It came from Uber, whose travel assistance reduced shelter workers’ and residents’ use of public transport and potential exposure to the coronavirus, as well as filling in the gaps left by the police. It came from international donors, responding to the NSM’s public advocacy on behalf of its members. And it came from the Solidarity Fund, which contributed R7.7 million alone towards personal protective equipment (PPE), in addition to its contributions to the healthcare of shelter residents and staff.
This aid was especially important in the Eastern Cape and North-West provinces where payment of subsidies was delayed by six months. This led a few shelters to restrict the number of women they could assist. Where shelter staff were not in a position to take on personal debt, they simply could not afford to purchase food and other necessities for residents.
Financial challenges remain
While shelters may have survived this period, their challenges prior to the lockdown remain unchanged. The balance of their costs must still be found, but now in the context of a highly constrained economy and restrictions on government spending. There is still no nationally-standardised costing of shelter services, and this maintains inequities between provinces and between shelters. Housemothers still receive subsidies below the minimum wage while the subsidies towards professional staff do not even match the entry-level equivalent post in the DSD. And the relative gap between these has increased over time. (This is the case across the NPO sector and not specific to shelters). In 2012/13 the subsidy for an NPO social auxiliary worker was 86% of the equivalent entry-level post in the DSD. By 2016/17 this had fallen to 61%. Subsidies towards social work posts decreased from 70% to 65% over the same period, and for social work supervisors from 66% to 57%.
Employment and skills training for women residents have also become more difficult. Due to the contraction of the economy during the lockdown, companies are no longer able to donate fabric for sewing schemes, for example, or to offer women employment. The increased wear and tear to shelters during the lockdown is very difficult to address; DSD subsidies do not cover maintenance. Against that backdrop, it’s time to turn to what has been proposed by the state.
Social care and unemployment
In October 2021, the Presidential Employment Stimulus plan was announced. This included a Social Employment Fund spearheaded by the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) and managed by the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). “Social employment” is a form of public works; the key difference is that social employment is managed by the non-state sector and public employment programmes are managed by the state. Attention to gender-based violence features in the community safety theme and provides funding for projects employing a minimum of 1,000 women, two days per week for nine months.
National Treasury’s Neighbourhood Development Partnership Programme also forms part of the stimulus plan. Eight cities are funded to include actions against domestic violence as part of their Public Employment Programme. DSD’s programmes focus on three areas: the Early Childhood Development (ECD) sector, the employment of social workers by the department and the expansion of the National Development Agency’s community service programme.
Although components of the stimulus plan focus on violence towards women, the plan’s primary goal is creating employment at scale. This aim is not particularly compatible with building back shelters and other social care services. Existing jobs at risk due to funding difficulties are not easily saved through this mechanism either. Caring work requires skill, training and supervision which the funds don’t really allow for; the twenty per cent that can be allocated to organisations’ costs are for the management of projects only. The design of the plan does not lend itself to creating employment projects for women in shelters either.
Ultimately, the scheme seems most suited to large-scale community or door-to-door education and information drives. These have their place but must be supported by services. Where, after all, do women go once they’ve been conscientised about their situation? Moreover, who will absorb the women who are offered these job opportunities, once they come to an end?
The fit between the violence women experience, care and industrial development, as well as trade, industry and competition, is not at all obvious – and that may be the problem. If this programme had been developed in collaboration with organisations then it might have taken their needs into better account and produced a more suitable and effective intervention. This might have been not that dissimilar to the DSD’s programme, with its focus on social workers and a variety of community workers.
The lockdown exacerbated the deep and long-standing challenges faced by the NGO segment of the care economy. Unless and until these are recognised and grappled with, there can be no building back better for this economy.
Lisa Vetten is a research associate at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies based at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her work has a strong focus on the NGO social care sector, the gender-based violence sector in particular. She has completed four different studies of domestic violence shelters in partnership with the National Shelter Movement, with another two in the process of being written up.