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Institute for Democracy in South Africa Occasional Papers

Towards social welfare services for all vulnerable children in South Africa:
a review of policy development, budgeting and service delivery

Judith Streak and Sasha Poggenpoel


31 March 2005

Posted with acknowledgements to IDASA's Children's Budget Unit.
Comments on the paper can be sent to Judith Streak at:
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South Africa has a duty to all its children and most of all, to those who are vulnerable due to their circumstances. Vulnerable children need dedicated interventions to ensure that they are protected from harm, assisted during and after trauma, and given opportunities to develop. Many government departments deliver services to protect and promote development of vulnerable children. Amongst these, the national and provincial departments of social development have a key role to play. In the past, they have been responsible, inter alia, for the provision of social assistance grants. In the post-1994 period the spotlight in research, advocacy, policy development and programme implementation for vulnerable children has focused on the social assistance function of social development departments. Much progress has been made over recent years to ensure that this vital support system is extended to more vulnerable children in South Africa. However, comparatively little has been done to monitor the other ways in which social development departments provide other services to children in vulnerable circumstances.

The purpose of this paper is to investigate and help shed light on what progress has been made in the social development sector - besides the payment of social grants - to advance the rights of vulnerable children in South Africa. More specifically, it focuses on those programmes and interventions that may be grouped together under the term ‘social welfare services’ (see the sub-section immediately below regarding the difficulties attached to definitions in this sector). The kind of services that traditionally form part of this area of work include, to name but a few examples, interventions (including children’s court services) where children are victim to or at risk of abuse, neglect or exploitation, the running of children’s homes, the provision of early childhood development, adoption services, services to provide assistance to children living and/or working on the street, foster care placement and care for children affected by HIV/AIDS. The services under the spotlight in this paper are critical because they represent some of government’s main strategies and actions (delegated to the departments of social development) to provide protection and care for the most vulnerable children in our society.

The approach adopted in this paper is to provide an overview of government policy and budgeting for social welfare services, also highlighting some of the current obstacles to service delivery. Then, to use this overview as a basis for drawing out key challenges that need to be addressed so that all vulnerable children gain access to the social welfare services which they need and to which they are entitled. While children are the primary focus of the paper, it is important to recognise that they form part of families and communities. Their rights and needs cannot be understood in isolation. It is also impossible to access budget data on social welfare that is childspecific. So while children represent a special interest throughout the paper, the discussion is framed by the more general context of social welfare services.

The difficulty of a plethora of slippery definitions

A variety of terms have been used over the years (and concurrently) to denote the collection of services under discussion in this paper. They have been labelled (amongst others) as ‘welfare services’, ‘social welfare services’, ‘developmental social welfare services’ and ‘social services’. The changes in terminology reflect, in part, shifts in ideological or methodological emphasis. However, they also bear out the lack of clarity around exactly what should make up the ‘basket of services’ covered by this term. There is also a sense that various relatively independent functions have been combined under this single rubric, making it difficult to arrive at a clear term that adequately reflects the whole. Many policy makers and practitioners involved in trying to improve service welfare service delivery to the vulnerable in South Africa over the last ten years point out that the slippery definitions are at the root of a lot of the troubles of the sector.

For the purposes of this paper, the term ‘social welfare services’ is used to refer to the terrain under investigation. ‘Social welfare services’ are seen to include all those services – excluding social security and research – that are delivered by departments of social development (with the assistance of non-governmental agencies) to support, empower and fulfil the rights of vulnerable South Africans as well as help prevent vulnerability. This choice of terminology is prompted by the definition implicit in the White Paper for Social Welfare (1997). When used here, the term ‘social welfare services’ is intended to acknowledge the white paper’s call for such services to be conceptualised and delivered within a developmental paradigm. As Loffell (2005 personnel correspondence) points out, social welfare services are designed to enable vulnerable and marginalised persons, groups and communities to meet their needs and achieve their potential.

Another source of potential confusion is the myriad of names attached to those government departments that deliver social welfare services. The national department was formerly known as the Department of Welfare and Population Development, but was renamed as the Department of Social Development in 1998. The provincial departments responsible for the implementation of social welfare services have a diversity of names. In this paper, the term ‘Department of Social Development’ is used to refer generally to the national and provincial departments responsible for social welfare services. Where a direct reference is taken from a particular provincial department, its own departmental variation is used.

The need to transform the social welfare system after 1994

The aim of this introduction, besides outlining the purpose, scope and structure of the paper, is to set the scene by sketching a brief context for the investigation into social welfare service policy development, budgeting and service delivery for vulnerable children in South Africa. Doing so requires first taking a step back in time. After 1994, one of the most difficult yet urgent tasks facing the first democratic government was to transform and extend the social welfare system. The welfare system spawned by apartheid was unresponsive to the needs of the majority of South Africans and instead, favoured a small, largely white urban elite (Follentine 2004:1). At the time of transition, millions of South Africans were living in extremely difficult circumstances and in need of support. This was due to a combination of factors, including apartheid public policy, extensive structural unemployment, poverty, violence, social disintegration, disability and the spread of HIV/Aids. Civil society initiatives provided some assistance to the vulnerable, but services and facilities were far from adequate.1

The scale of suffering in South Africa called for the welfare system to be transformed and its reach to be extended. However, the need to change the system was also implicit in government’s policy promises and human rights obligations. In the Reconstruction and Development Programme (ANC 1994), government unambiguously committed itself to developing programmes to assist the poor and vulnerable. It also promised to give priority to vulnerable children in the development and implementation of programmes for the vulnerable. The principle of prioritising children was further entrenched in 1995 when government ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and in 1996 through the establishment of the National Programme of Action for Children (NPA).2 Also in 1996, South Africa adopted its Constitution (Act 108 of 1996), which gives everyone and children in particular a range of political, civil, cultural and socio-economic rights. Children’s rights in South Africa were given further expression through government’s ratification of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC). These legal instruments brought implications for the transformation of the social welfare system. More particularly, they meant that government would have to design, finance and implement policies and programmes to translate children’s rights into reality.

The challenge of integrating children’s rights into law, policy, programming and budgeting

All children in South Africa thus have rights that are set out in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, as well as in the CRC and ACRWC. The aim of these rights is to ensure that all children can experience a quality of life that, at the very least, protects their dignity and safety – and meets their basic needs (such as adequate food, clothing, shelter, schooling and health care). The rights are also in place to help ensure that children are not deprived of resources and care necessary for adequate development. Critically, government is legally obliged to develop laws, policies, programmes and budgets in a way that advances the realisation of these rights. As such, policy development, budgeting and service delivery in the realm of social welfare services must be informed by these child rights and obligations.

A number of constitutional rights are pertinent to the social welfare of children. In Section 27, everyone is afforded the rights to health care services, sufficient food and water, as well as social security (including social assistance). Furthermore, Section 28 gives children specifically a range of rights that are relevant to social welfare:

Relevant child-specific rights in Section 28 of the Constitution
  1. Every child has the right -
    1. to a name and a nationality from birth;
    2. to family care or parental care, or to appropriate alternative care when removed from the family environment;
    3. to basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services;
    4. to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse and degradation;
    5. to be protected from exploitative labour practices;
    6. not to be required or permitted to perform work or provide services that -
      1. are inappropriate for a person of that child’s age; or
      2. place at risk the child’s well-being, education, physical or mental health or spiritual, moral or social development;
    7. not to be detained except as a measures of last resort, in which case, in addition to the rights a child enjoys under sections 12 and 35, the child may be detained only for the shortest appropriate time, and has the right to be -
      1. kept separately from detained persons over the age of 18 years; and
      2. treated in a manner, and kept in conditions, that take account of the child’s age;
    8. to have a legal practitioner assigned to the child by the state, and at state expense, in civil proceedings affecting the child, if substantial injustice would otherwise result; and
    9. not to be used directly in armed conflict, and to be protected in times of armed conflict.
  2. A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.

The challenge confronting government in the design of welfare policy and programming for implementation of child rights is made more difficult by the fact that the Constitution only gives vague definition to the content of the rights and to the associated government obligations to deliver services to children. For example, Section 28 does not clarify exactly what package of goods can be understood to form part of ‘social services’ or ‘basic health care services’. In addition, government’s task is made difficult by the fact that when government interprets and gives content to children’s constitutional rights in South Africa, it must be done in a way that resonates with the rights given to children by the CRC and the ACRWC.

There is not yet clarity about exactly what services government is obliged to plan and budget for to protect the constitutional rights of vulnerable children, and in particular what the package ‘social welfare services’ should be. This is partly because the process of reviewing all child-related laws and putting in place a new set of laws is not yet quite complete. The Children’s Bill is presently being debated in Parliament. This Bill emanated from the South African Law Commission’s review of the Child Care Act and makes an attempt to align children’s law with child rights obligations. The enactment of this bill will go some way towards clarifying the exact nature of the legal obligations on government to provide social welfare services to children, including better guidelines for what the social welfare service basket contains. However, for the Bill to translate into effective service delivery that ensures adequate care for children in vulnerable circumstances in practice it will have to be accompanied by clear policy guidelines, development of norms and standards for the different services in the Bill and costing of the different services legislated for vulnerable children.

Institutional arrangements for the provision of social welfare services

In Schedule 4 of the Constitution, welfare services are defined as a functional area of concurrent national and provincial legislative competence.3 The national Department of Social Development was tasked with policy design and monitoring. In 1997, it released the White Paper for Social Welfare: Principles, guidelines, recommendations, proposed policies and programmes for developmental social welfare in South Africa (Ministry for Welfare and Population Development 1997). This became the key policy framework to guide the transformation of the social welfare sector (Follentine 2004:1). The White Paper for Social Welfare is discussed in some detail in Section 1.1 below. At this juncture, it is worth noting that the white paper called for a fundamental shift away from the ‘welfare approach’ used by social development departments in the past. Instead, services were now to be planned and delivered using a developmental approach.4 The ultimate aim was to improve the impact of service delivery by integrating and linking the various programmes directed towards vulnerable people, including children.

Against this policy backdrop, provincial social development departments had the primary responsibility for programme implementation. They were expected to draw on the existing capacity of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working both in the ‘formal welfare sector’ (organisations already receiving some funding from government) and in the ‘informal sector’ (those not yet subsidised by government). To finance its function, the national department was to advocate for funds from national government’s slice of total government revenue. The funds available to the national sphere are determined annually through the vertical division of revenue: the division of total revenue between national, provincial and local government. To finance their functions, the nine provincial social development departments were required to advocate for funds from total provincial revenue. The funds available to each provincial government are determined annually through the horizontal division of revenue: the sharing of total provincial revenue amongst the nine provinces. Critically, the criteria used in the vertical and horizontal division of total government revenue did not factor in the costs of welfare services based on a careful consideration of prices and anticipated demand for services. This left the door open for escalating demand for social grants in the provinces to squeeze out spending on the remaining service responsibilities of social development departments.

Eight years after the release of the white paper, the social development sector is undergoing radical change. On 1 April 2005, a newly created agency, the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) is to begin operation.5 SASSA is to take over the function of budgeting for and administering social grant payments from the provinces. SASSA was established in response to the difficulties experienced by provinces in finding sufficient funds to pay social grants, as well as ensuing litigation. These difficulties stemmed from additional demand created by the implementation of new social assistance programmes – such as the Child Support Grant (CSG) - the extension of already existing programmes to more beneficiaries, as well increases in the value of the payment of all grants. There is fear that ballooning social assistance payments may also have been driven in part by some fraud and inefficiency in the system, particularly in respect of the disability grant. (See National Treasury, 2004a).

The introduction of SASSA involves a number of processes, including:
  • the separation of the grants function from other functions (particularly social welfare services) at the provincial level;
  • the transfer of relevant staff, assets, contracts and liabilities from provinces to the agency and the national department; and
  • the establishment of a new funding mechanism through the national Department of Social Development to the agency, which will see a significant adjustment in the provincial equitable share and the equitable share formula (National Treasury 2004a:81).
As an interim arrangement (until the details of how the new institutional arrangement is to work), a conditional grant has been established to carry funds for paying social grants and related administration costs. The conditional grant will be disbursed to provinces for them to use to deliver grants in 2005/06. The 2005 Budget gives total estimated values of the grant for 2005/06 as well as the outer two years of the Medium Term Budget Framework Period.

This means that provincial social development departments are now left with planning for and delivering social welfare services and support services (such as research and administration) as their core business. At this time, provincial governments are being forced to take stock of the non-social security aspects of their service delivery – which received relatively little attention between 1996 and 2003 (Follentine 2005; Quickfall 2005; Ditlhage 2004). After little movement in the realm of social welfare policy, 2004 saw the release of a number of new policy documents (see Section 1).

It is important to point out that the focal point for children in government is the Office on the Rights of the Child (ORC) that is within the President’s office. The ORC is responsible for leading the implementation of the NPA for advancing child rights as well as for monitoring and evaluating children’s well-being. The NPA steering committee, which is in the final stages of a major restructuring, is co-ordinated through the ORC.

Meanwhile, the need for better spending on and delivery of social welfare services to vulnerable children and families’ remains as urgent as it was in 1994. Little progress has been made in the fight against structural unemployment and poverty (Simkins 2004; Streak & Van der Westhuizen 2004; National Department of Social Development 2004c:6). Extensive unemployment remains stubbornly entrenched in the economy. Using the expanded definition of unemployment (which includes people who have given up looking for work), the unemployment rate was estimated to be 28.6% at the time of the transition to democracy. Recent estimates find the unemployment rate to be 41.2% using the expanded definition and 27.8% using the strict definition. This translates, respectively, into 8.4 million or 4.6 million unemployed people, depending on the definition of unemployment being used. (See Streak & Van der Westhuizen 2004:1). Increasing numbers of people, a large proportion of them children, are in need of care, support and developmental services due to the unemployment crisis, associated poverty and other factors such as crime, disability, family difficulties and HIV/AIDS.6

The structure of this paper

Against this background, this paper sets out to review the provision of social welfare services through the three lenses of policy development, budgeting and service delivery. Section one investigates the policy terrain to establish what frameworks are in place to guide the delivery of social welfare services to vulnerable people - and to children more specifically. To this end, it revisits the White Paper for Social Welfare and shows how other general policy documents have extended the framework created by the white paper. It also offers an outline of child-specific policy development. Section one concludes by identifying important policy gaps in need of attention and expected policy delay.

Section two focuses on government’s funding of social welfare services. It explains how provincial budgets for social welfare are determined and sets out the relevant programme classification for budget reporting. It then provides an overview of the priority afforded social welfare service spending and real growth trends in social welfare service programme budgets between 2000/01 and 2006/07. Finally, it considers government’s financial support for non-governmental delivery agencies and spotlights the financial crisis currently undermining service provision (including statutory services) to vulnerable children by the non-governmental sector.

Section three takes a brief look at service delivery in the social welfare arena. It draws attention to the lack of adequate information on how service delivery occurs in practice and the urgent need for an audit in this regard. Using the limited sources available, it flags a few discrepancies in service delivery that should be taken into account when responding to the challenges being experienced in practice. Section three goes on to convey the obstacles identified by government officials and nongovernmental service providers that currently undermine the roll-out of social welfare services.

Finally, the conclusion draws out the key challenges emerging from the paper that need to be addressed so as to advance children’s entitlement to adequate protection, care and development.


  1. The White Paper for Social Welfare (Ministry for Welfare & Population Development 1997: Chapter one and pg 48) offers an overview of social welfare service delivery prior to 1994, highlighting its inadequacy and the role of civil society organisations. For a child-centred perspective, see the first issue paper relating to the review the Child Care Act (South African Law Commission 1998) and the recently released National Policy Framework for the Prevention and Management of Child Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation Draft Policy document (National Department of Social Development 2004a).

  2. An NPA Steering Committee was formed to oversee the implementation of the NPA.

  3. It was envisaged that the role of local government, critical for expanding the reach of services to remote areas, would be developed at a later date once adequate municipal capacity had been established.

  4. The welfare approach is generally understood to focus on interventions that are clinical, symptom-led, prescriptive and fragmented. This approach works primarily at the individual level and tends to create dependencies. By contrast, a developmental approach to social welfare emphasises integrated, multipronged interventions that build self-reliance and foster participation in decision-making at individual, family and community level. As Loffell (2005 in personnel correspondence) points out, there are at present debates in progress as to whether the shift is away from `welfare’ as such, or away from archaic forms of practice towards forms which are properly contextualised and are consistent with the values and goals of our human-rights based democracy. These debates also have to do with the ways in which the work of the social welfare sector supports the broader development agenda of the country as a whole.

  5. The Social Assistance Act of 2004 makes the transfer of powers possible. The act provides a national legislative framework for the provision of different types of social grants, social relief of distress, the delivery of social assistance grants by a national agency and the establishment of an Inspectorate for Social Security (National Department of Social Development 2004b).

  6. Recent research by Child Welfare SA (cited in NACOSS 2004b:3) vividly portrays the need for social welfare service delivery. Due to AIDS, the number of orphaned children reported to Child Welfare societies in the country tripled between 2002 and 2003, compared to the previous three years.

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