Why social welfare services in South Africa need to take centre stage

Women and children in South Africa face extraordinarily high levels of violence. PHOTO: Tracey Adams / African News Agency (ANA)

Social welfare services were not an election issue. No political party seemed ready to make bold improvements to the conditions of those working in services any more than they were able to offer concrete visions around expanding the availability of these services which include post-rape care, domestic violence counselling and shelters; child protection services and child and youth care centres; residential facilities for older persons and people with disabilities; safe and protected working environments for people with disabilities, as well as skills development and capacity building; substance abuse treatment and care; and mental health services and emotional support and assistance for people experiencing various life difficulties.

To place these issues squarely on the political agenda the Care Work Campaign convened a panel discussion with the ANC, DA and IFP just prior to the elections. (The EFF did not participate, despite being invited to do so). Its aim was to challenge parties to pay attention to the social welfare sector and to start thinking seriously about the future of services in the country, whether they were elected to parliament or deployed to government.

The audience was drawn from the NGO sector which provides a great many services on behalf of the Department of Social Development (DSD). Audience members attested to the often-tense relationship between the two due to delays in the signing of funding agreements between NGOs and the DSD and the DSD’s late payment of funds to NGOs. Most funding to NGOs by the DSD is also inadequate.

Organisations also asked how the Auditor-General could give a clean audit to the provincial departments of social development when hundreds of millions of rands that could have been used to address the shortfalls in their funding were being returned to Treasury, unspent. Only the IFP’s election manifesto explicitly undertook to address this significant issue of under-funding to NGOs. 

NGOs also took issue with the sectors neglected by the party manifestos. Older persons, for example, did not feature in any of the parties’ manifestos except in relation to grants and pensions (although the DA did note that they can be victims of abuse).

According to the WHO’s World Report on Ageing and Health (2015), the proportion of South Africa’s population aged 60 years or older will double from 7.7% (in 2015) to 15.4% of the country’s total population over the next 35 years (by 2050). This has important implications for how the government positions care and support services to older persons in future – especially in light of the fact that it cannot meet the current need.

According to the 2015 Comprehensive report on the review of the White Paper for Social Development there is already a lack of long-term care facilities, as well as adequate and affordable housing for older persons. In 2018/19, 23 424 beds were allocated for frail care within 413 facilities in the country. This represents 0.5% provision for care versus the 2% that is needed. 

Mental health services are another key area of concern, with the Life Esidimeni tragedy providing a shocking example of the consequences of failing to take mental health seriously. According to the World Mental Health Atlas for 2017 there were only 1.52 psychiatrists per 100 000 adult South Africans, with 0.08 child psychiatrists per 100 000 children. In the same year just 3% of the health budget was dedicated to mental health in 2017.

In the Statement for the 41st Meeting of Professional Board for Social Work 2019, it was reported that 32 009 social workers were registered with the South African Council for Social Services Professionals as at 26 February 2019 – the vast majority of whom do not work in mental health. This is in comparison to the target of 60 000 social workers by 2030 as suggested by the National Development Plan. And yet the IFP was the only party whose manifesto made explicit reference to increasing mental health services.

On balance, while no comprehensive vision around the future of social welfare services was offered by the ANC, IFP, DA or EFF, the ANC’s manifesto was the weakest in this regard. Nonetheless, they have been returned to government and NGOs will have to work hard to ensure that what was an electoral non-issue does not remain so in the new government. 

Who is appointed Minister of Social Development will provide an important indication of just how much attention the sixth government is likely to give social welfare services. A political lightweight, with no background in the field, will be a sure sign that the deprioritisation of social welfare services will continue into the future.    

It is also time for those party representatives headed to the national assembly and provincial legislatures to take up the neglect of social welfare services. The payment of grants is not the DSD’s only purpose. After 25 years of democracy it’s time to treat social welfare services as an element of the socio-economic rights that all South Africans are entitled to and to recognize the role NGOs play in addressing poverty and promoting the social development of communities.


The Care Work Campaign is housed by the Shukumisa Coalition and works in collaboration with the Vhembe Civil Society Network, the National Shelter Movement, the National Coalition for Social Services, the KwaZulu-Natal Welfare, Social Services and Development Forum, the Eastern Cape NGO Coalition and the South African Federation for Mental Health.