The writer argues that women are often denied inheritance rights, have their property stolen after the death of a partner, and face widow discrimination from society. Surviving spouse grants are therefore a basic human right Picture Courtney Africa/African News agency(ANA)
The writer argues that women are often denied inheritance rights, have their property stolen after the death of a partner, and face widow discrimination from society. Surviving spouse grants are therefore a basic human right Picture Courtney Africa/African News agency(ANA)

Why South Africa needs a grant for surviving spouses

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 16, 2020

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Shabnam Palesa Mohamed

LOSING a spouse is a painful experience. Losing a spouse and not having real means to survive financially, or take care of children, makes facing the future a nightmare.

Women are often denied inheritance rights, have their property stolen after the death of a partner, and face widow discrimination from society. Surviving spouse grants are therefore a basic human right.

Social grants are intended to improve standards of living, redistribute wealth and create a more equitable society. Sections 24 to 29 of the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution entrench the socio-economic rights of citizens, including the right to social security.

Government (public servants) are obligated to uphold these key rights.

The law says “the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of the right”.

While South Africa used to allocate a widows’ grant, for some inexplicable reason, this was stopped.

A grant for unemployed or struggling spouses would certainly be a practical relief.

It would not only maintain a personal sense of dignity, but ensure that they can pay for the basic necessities such as food, rent, utilities, transport and medical bills - without having to beg for handouts from struggling welfare organisations. Importantly, this grant would be invested back into the economy.

Given the millions of people unemployed before, and millions more after the Covid-19 lockdown, not to implement such a grant condemns the majority to live in poverty and debt.

While it is simplistic to say that people must just find a job in our class-rigged economy, the reality is that it takes money to search, print and email CVs, and to be interviewed in person or through internet applications.

It also takes money to be able to start a business, which would also assist to resuscitate our economy.

In 2019, women from the KZN-based Women’s Voice organisation travelled to Parliament, calling for a relaxation of the income tax law for widows who work and receive the monthly pensions of deceased spouses.

When they receive monthly pension payouts, it moves them to a higher tax bracket and they are left with less than before.

To date, this tax oversight has not been properly addressed.

In countries like Ireland, there is a once-off payment on the death of a spouse. This is not the ideal solution, as there are still bills to pay after that once-off amount is depleted.

My view is that surviving spouses who earn less than R15 000 a month from employment, a business, or pension payouts, and who pay rent as they do not own property, should receive a monthly grant of at least R5 000 until financial circumstances improve.

In addition, R1500 should be allocated to each child arising from the relationship, until they are financially independent.

In South Africa, there is a growing movement to advocate for the implementation of a universal basic income grant (UBIG) of R4500 a month, which provides basic economic security to each individual, regardless of marital, family, or household status.

The UBIG can be progressively taxed if the individual earned more than R20 000 a month. No doubt, a referendum on UBIG would be overwhelmingly in favour.

While we must robustly challenge apartheid debt, structural inequality and corruption, an Ubuntu-based UBIG will bring welcome relief to millions of distressed poor and debt-ridden humans.

However, the surviving spouse grant, UBIG and all other socio- economic transformation requires us to ask questions, know the facts and advocate for the change we want.

The first point raised by the average status-quo-benefiting billionaire and/or politician is “Where will the money come from?”

Well, let’s start with cancelling apartheid debt. Let’s ask why the top 10% owns 85.6% of all wealth. Let’s face the fact that our country’s mines belong to multinational corporations, who loot our resources and leave.

Let’s stop billions of rand leaving our country through illegal offshore deals.

Let’s get righteously angry about predatory greed, including Covid-19 corruption.

It’s not that the money isn’t there. It’s that political will is blatantly absent. It’s also that we allow ourselves to be distracted and divided, forgetting how powerful we are as the working class and poor, who can build an independent society.

So what can we do to take back our power?

Activism and advocacy. Mobilise around the surviving spouse grant, UBIG, and other causes - by educating people about the facts, the needs, and the benefits.

Create petitions delivered to decision-making public servants. Insist that public servants raise our causes vociferously in Parliament.

Organise or join marches and pickets. Build solidarity with those who believe in our common purpose. In a country where 60% of children do not have access to proper nutrition, we have more in common with shack dwellers, who are one salary away from hunger, than we do with the top 10%. And, of course, engage the media to cover campaigns.

There was a time when many thought we may not defeat political apartheid.

We did, to an extent. Our political system of top-down, pyramid-style representative democracy does not work for most of us.

As long we don’t know who funds political parties, it never will. What remains, post-1994, is growing economic apartheid between the 1% to 10% predatory elite and the rest of us.

As I finish this column, activist, lawyer and diplomat Devikarani Priscilla Jana passed over to the other side.

I am reminded of powerful words quoted in her book, the words of Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu: “Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight.”

The struggle for real freedom continues.

Palesa Mohamed is an activist, journalist, mediation practitioner and founder of women’s writing project Womandla! She recently received a WOZA Women in Law award.

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