Family policies at the Negotiations Tables

Imelda Diouf, Director Pro Bono Sekwele Centre for Family Studies

Congratulating ourselves on our COVID response is a double-edged sword.

There are no longer reports of unmanaged queues for COVID testing. Field hospitals are being closed. There is no demand for ventilators. The economy is reopening. The population still wears masks and sanitises with few complaints. The Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, recently reported to the National Assembly that the Covid-19 pandemic was declining with fewer positive cases being reported. His words are hopeful; “We can say as South Africans the surge is behind us”. Indeed, of the 638,517 confirmed cases, recoveries of 563,891 translate to a remarkable recovery rate of 88 percent. And while every death is a tragedy, the total number of COVID related deaths stands at only 14,889; contrary to the gloomy outlook, a few months ago, of predicted deaths in the hundreds of thousands.

If however the health crisis is being managed, then the time of “can’t because of COVID” is no longer acceptable. There is no longer any excuse to not deal with the looting of the state during and before the pandemic. There is no longer any excuse for not implementing the National Development Plan 2030. There is no longer any excuse for accepting poor performance of politicians who have hidden behind a lockdown of threats and public officials who have had the excuse of “can’t because of COVID”. There is no excuse for the lack of implementation of the White Paper on Families (2013).

Unsurprisingly the term ‘social compact’ has crept back into the language of politicians and public officials alike. If the population cannot be subdued by pandemic concerns, then a reminder of the social contract between government and the people becomes a useful tool. At a recent Woman’s Day speech, President Cyril Ramaphosa trotted out the same-old-same-old “Today we commit to a new social compact with the women of this country informed by our collective commitment to gender equality”, even as the daily incidents of rape, murder, kidnapping and mutilation told another story of the publically stated gender pandemic.

South Africa might never encounter a second COVID wave and even if this transpires, the country surely has the infrastructure and experience to manage the ongoing pandemic. Thus, now is the time for the family sector to rethink the social compact and bargain robustly at the negotiating table. The lockdown highlighted the need for capable and resilient families who are able to manage strained household budgets, education of children, care for vulnerable members and deal with conflict and violence at the household level. The family sector, comprising voters and citizens, must therefore go to the negotiating table with a clear agenda of pro-family policies and service delivery mechanisms that will strengthen households and families.

The South African family is defined as and is embracing of not only the nuclear family (mother, father and children), but also single parent, multi-generational, grandparent, same-sex and sibling families. Family is a broad concept; thus pro-family requires being supportive of the range of families within the country context. As rights holders of family policy, the sector also needs to ensure that family needs are part of the current economic debates where the impact on end users somehow gets omitted from planning and budgeting processes. Economists and policy makers need to be reminded that economic matters cannot and should not be pursued at the expense of social matters. Economic policy that is separated from social policy merely kicks the ball of poverty further down the road. Pro-family policy needs to guide laws, programmes, public interventions and household support to promote and enhance family life, marital unions, reproduction, raising children, intergenerational care and building capability. Families must be supported where they are already thriving, but also strengthened where they are under threat.

The National Development Plan 2030 specifies the social compact as an “agreement among individual people in a society or between the people and their government that outlines the rights and duties of each party while building national solidarity”. From the service delivery perspective, the duties of government are clearly detailed in the 14 Priority Outcomes to achieve the National Development Plan. These include, among others, education and health, safety, employment through inclusive growth, improved quality of household life and one which is particularly poignant in these COVID-times: a comprehensive, responsive and sustainable social protection system. All very family focused priorities.

The problem with the social compact however is that in the main we do not live as individuals. We live in households, mainly with family. Our individual concerns and needs extend to the group of people who are our affiliated unit of function. In a democracy, though individuals might vote for their political representatives, social activity (including voting) is almost never completely individual. Family functioning and family relations support decisions, growth and development (or not to the detriment of the individual).

While pro-family policy can influence family well-being when government is a committed partner, families themselves need to recognise own agency. The response strategy for families outlined in the White Paper focuses on: promotion of family life, family strengthening and family preservation. Within the social compact the family sector as rights holders must ensure that it it lobbies for pro-family polices and services to: “Improve the capacities of families and their members to establish social interactions which make a meaningful contribution towards a sense of community, social cohesion and national solidarity”.

The current study of the Family International Monitor (FIM), on Family and Poverty offers valuable guiding principles in addressing capability and functioning. The primary relational system of family care, education and economy, as well as the ability to be active citizens for pro-family policy, are important factors in achieving wellbeing. By focussing on the relational factors that determine family capability, the study is a powerful reminder that the family sector cannot and must not see itself as a silent partner on the other side of the negotiating table.