Ms. Imelda Diouf, Director of the Sekwele Centre for Family Studies, Brooklyn, Pretoria, South Africa.
COVID 19 has forced the nation to act as a collective. The president has spoken, the troops have been rallied, philanthropists are emerging and people have been soothed, temporarily at least. South Africa is ahead of the game with government communications managed, testing is being scaled up, temporary housing for the homeless, social grants distributed and the banking sector reflective rather than demanding. COVID 19 shows that the collective can act! This of course beggars the question; why have we waited till March 2020 to see decisive action in response to a crisis? Gender based violence and excessive levels of criminality, 55% of the population living in poverty, nearly 50% of children entering grade 1 who then drop out before getting to grade 12, the water crisis, the more than 6 million unemployed, the never ending bailouts of state owned entities and junk status. Are these lesser crises or do we as a nation not have enough will to act?
COVID 19 presents an opportunity to observe the manner in which an almost insurmountable problem can be addressed. Without understanding the depth and extent of the problem and not enough empirical evidence to support an action plan towards an end game; we are able to act decisively and in unity. We’ve legislated, cajoled and threatened people to go back into their homes, back to their families demanding that the family and household unit functions in a way that will support the largely unknown endgame with no time frames.
The National Development Plan 2030, the national programme of South Africa, presents a myriad of problems to be solved within a given time frame; high unemployment, corruption, an unsustainable economy, inadequate infrastructure, a public health system that cannot meet demand, to name a few. Our Future-make it work to be accomplished through critical actions of role players, including the people who are currently locked down in households, mainly with families.
To its’ credit, there is a focus on family strengthening within the NDP 2030. Extracts from the plan point to reasonable expectation from a family perspective. There is mention of social protection that brings about social solidarity, ensuring a basic standard of living, a role in helping households manage life’s risks, proper nutrition and diet essential for sound physical and mental development, as well as breaking the cycle of poverty. Long-term health outcomes shaped by lifestyle, diet and nutritional levels, education, sexual behaviour, exercise and the level of violence are moreover detailed. Finally, also considered are the issues of sex education, nutrition, exercise and combating smoking and alcohol abuse that need to be promoted by families.
These are critical actions that need to be addressed, starting at the level of the household; with a families that are strengthened and equipped to deal with societal problems and weakened delivery systems of government. The education of children beyond the classroom, non-violent behaviours that are learned within harmonious households, entrepreneurial dreams and shared resources that are transferred between generations, care and protection of infrastructure beyond electrified walls, norms and values that are not dependent on anti-corruption legislation and courts.
The NDP 2030 further details fostering of a social compact which at the core is 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”. The problem with this kind of contract / compact is that we do not however live as individuals. We live in households, mainly with family. The concerns and needs of our households often extend beyond the four walls to the group of people that is our affiliated unit of function. The question therefore must be “with whom is this social compact built? With individuals, groups, communities?” The answer might lie in another detail of the NDP 2030; that of active citizenry and leadership towards a social compact that starts not with a president who leads (even decisively), or with politicians who pass laws that they may or may not understand, or religious leaders who journey to truth via social facts that are truth or distort truth, or with charismatic individuals with dishonest agendas that draw in followers. Active citizenship and leadership at its core has a foundation in our homes, together with a functional unit of family.
It therefore stands to reason that the social compact is between the state and families; not individuals and not the community which is only as strong or weak as the households and constituent members of those households. The social compact must be with families who are there to – according to the goal of the White Paper on Families (2013) 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”
Families must be supported where they are already thriving and strengthened where they are under threat. Various policy formulation processes, for example, the Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP) and Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy state that economic matters cannot / should not be pursued at the expense of social matters; economic policy cannot be separated from social policy that is in the main directed towards constituent members of families and households.
But a cautious approach to family is advised because while the “family might be perceived as a unit of love, caring and stability, it is also the unit that legitimises oppression and cruelty in the name of owning a private space from the state”. If however we know that this is potentially the space of domestic violence and abuse of vulnerable individuals, including children, women, older persons and persons with disability, why would we not place focus on strengthening capacity of this space? Why would we not want to build the unit of caring for our constituent members.
Our current scenario of lockdown might not be the last time that we are instructed to “go back” to our homes. Putting on the family lens provides an opportunity to already see beyond COVID 19. South Africa must pay attention to fostering a social compact that empowers families and places them at the centre of development. Admit to our mistakes of silo mentality. Go back to the basics. Improve the conditions of the households, but also the people, the families that reside in those four walls. Strengthened families do have an ability to support the critical actions of implementing the NDP 2030. A family focus is the catalyst for change.