Once a month, old women in brightly patterned dresses begin gathering outside a government building in Soweto with the first rays of the sun. Some will wait for hours to collect their pensions in what has become a regular, if unpleasant, ritual for three-quarters of South Africa's elderly.
Joanna Hadebe, a former maid, is typical of Soweto pensioners. Walking with a cane, and partially blind, she is still the breadwinner in her family. Both of her grown daughters are unemployed, and Mrs. Hadebe's pension of 540 rand, or $67, is all she has to feed, clothe, and shelter her family of five for a month.
"It's never enough when you pay for everything," Hadebe says, tallying up the month's expenses: She owes $6.50 to a friend who lent her money last month, $12 for the gas bill, $8 for rent. She worries that once again, her family will spend the last days of the month hungry.
Life in the new South Africa was supposed to be better for the country's elderly, many of whom bore the brunt of apartheid in their youth. But AIDS, unemployment, a falling rand, and declining foreign investment have hit the country's elders hard, leaving many with the responsibility of providing for their families long after such burdens should have been passed on to younger generations.
"You can't just leave your children without anything to eat," says Jabuleli Thambekwayo, who considers herself blessed: unlike her neighbors, she has no family to support. "The pension is so small, but they have to support their families. Not because they want to, but because there is no work in South Africa."
Intended to be a limited poverty relief program for the aged, the pensions system in South Africa has turned into a social welfare program relied on by young and old alike.
Like Hadebe, many seniors support children who are among the 37 percent of South Africans unemployed. Others, like Anna Maseloane, have been left to care for grandchildren after watching their children die of AIDS.
The national pension rate is set at $67 a month, about halfway below the official South African poverty line for a single person. The real value of the pensions, which are available to women over 60 and men over 65, has fallen in recent years, since the amount paid is not linked to inflation or automatically increased every year.
This July, for the first time in years, pensions will increase by about $3.50 a month, but the government recognizes that the increase won't dent South Africa's 43 percent poverty rate.
"This problem will not be solved by grants alone," says Mbulelo Musi, a spokesman for the Department of Social Development. "We have to find a much more comprehensive solution.... Business must play a more meaningful role, as well as unions and nonprofits."
In July, the South African parliament will begin consideration of a much-anticipated report by a government commission that is studying possible long-term poverty solutions.
Ideas that have been aired include a food-stamp-type program, grants to elders caring for orphaned children, and strengthening laws that regulate the obligations of private businesses to their former employees.
Since many of South Africa's elderly were either unemployed or worked in the informal sector like Hadebe, much of the burden of caring for the aged will likely continue to fall on the government, which already spends more than half of the welfare budget on old-age grants.
Meanwhile, the Department of Social Services is working to repair the way the country distributes its 1.9 million pensions. During the apartheid era, pensions were largely unavailable to nonwhites. The expansion of the pension system to rural areas and townships, where telephone and regular mail service are often unavailable, has been difficult.
A report released last month by the Department of Social Development found that in many parts of the country, the distribution system for distributing monthly payments remains a nightmare of long lines, missing payments, and inefficient, even abusive service. Pensioners often wait all day for their payments, with no shelter, seating, or restrooms - and at least two have died in the last year while waiting for their money.
"There are some pay points that take place under trees, which for us, is unacceptable," says Fezile Makiwani, the head of South Africa's social security program. "We want pay points to have adequate shelter, toilets, and places for the pensioners to sit. That is what would constitute a human condition."
One problem with the pension system, government officials say, is the lack of a national set of standards governing their distribution.
In June, the government is expected to issue a set of uniform standards for pension pay points. The standards would draw partly on a new high-tech distribution system run by ABSA, one of the nation's largest banks, in Gauteng province, where Johannesburg and the capital city of Pretoria are located.
Using a sophisticated computer system that scans pensioners' identification cards, checks their thumb prints against a centralized database, and then electronically distributes the correct payment from a locked safe, ABSA has reduced the amount of time it takes to process a pension payment from several minutes to about 15 seconds. A small army of volunteers answers questions and helps with crowd control. And payment times are now staggered, so that those arriving to pick up child and disability grants are not competing with elders.
Pensioners who have used the new system say what was once an all-day ordeal now takes less than an hour, though government officials have had difficulty convincing many elders that they no longer need to arrive at dawn.
"Before, people used to push, push, push," says Norman Mazibuko, who has worked for six years as a guard at a number of Soweto pay points that have recently been taken over by ABSA.
"Only the strong could get in, not the grannies. Now, you see, there are no lines. People just come in and get their payments," he says.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor