During these economic tough times where unemployment is rampant and the ravages of disease rule the roost, the family has become the refuge of those in need of a semblance of order in their livelihoods. And at the centre of these families are the grandmothers. They are the fulcrum around which the families revolve.
A senior lecturer in sociology at Wits University, the author Sarah Mosoetsa works from the premise that the family is the microcosm of society. Whatever troubles the family will, by extension, ail the community around which it finds itself. The triumphs of the family reverberate throughout society.
In Eating from One Pot: The Dynamics of Survival in Poor South African Households, Mosoetsa looks at African households in the KwaZulu/Natal townships of Mpumalanga [Hammersdale] and Enhlalakahle [Greytown]. What she finds is shockingly representative of the entire country – indeed the whole continent and the Third World.
As men lose jobs because factories retrench and downsize, they look to the family to hide their shortcomings and failure. Formerly breadwinners and general providers, they find their traditional positions as heads of households challenged. The answer, more often than not, is to seek solace in the bottle and be abusive towards their spouses.
But when it is their female counterparts who encounter the same misfortune of losing their jobs, their position as mothers is instead strengthened, Mosoetsa finds in her research. The women in the two townships she focused on were previously employed in the textile and footwear industries. Many in Mpumalanga use their retrenchment packages to buy sewing machines, allowing them to go into business. Some do so well they get government tenders.
Those who do not do as well branch out to eke out a living through other forms of survival found in the informal economy. They would sell all sorts of wares, something most men wouldn’t be seen dead doing. Back home, the men would still insist on dictating how the family income generated by their partners should be used. This is the source of most conflict.
Desperate for money, young women with no source of income prostitute themselves to earn a living. The resultant contraction of disease, more often the dreaded HIV/Aids, puts many out of the game of life. When they die from Aids complications, they more often than not leave children behind.
These children and their mothers are always the burden of the grandmothers, who are on pension, living on the monthly grant. The child support grants received by those who are still spared the indignity of Aids is almost invariably never used for the benefit of the child. The young women look at this grant as their own money, for such personal accoutrements as mobile phones, clothes and visits to the hair salon. To maximize their earnings, many of the young girls do not think twice about having more than one child, mostly fatherless.
With the disappearance of the traditional workplace, the family is the new focal point of economic activity. Money is made at home through such activities as selling wares, growing vegetables and renting out backyard space. But the money is never enough, as more of it goes towards food, electricity and water.
Health suffers as there’s no budget for it. But the services at the local clinic, as many residents complain, is hardly up to par. The best that even HIV patients can look forward to at these primary health care facilities are pain killers, which are no use against the killer pandemic.
Mosoetsa writes about families that consider tomatoes, rice and spices luxury items they never put in their grocery basket.
Paying for electricity becomes a challenge many cannot meet, hence the ubiquitous illegal electricity connections, a feature of township life that ultimately leads authorities to act against defaulters. The result is the regrettable civic uprisings that are almost always violent.
Many look to their local ward councilors and political parties for salvation. Their hopes are not always met. Community and faith-based organizations often have to fill this void. Many provide home-based care services for the afflicted, now wary of stepping out in the public.
These home-based care workers are volunteers with not so much as a stipend. The ill they visit expect them to arrive with food parcels and other forms of help outside health relief.
What people do is ‘eat from one pot’ with a view to looking out for family. But not everybody in the family pools their resources for the benefit of the others.
The young women who selfishly spend their child support grants on themselves are but one example.
Had it not been for the grannies, most families would crumble.
Published in 2011 by Witwatersrand University Press, Eating from One Pot: The Dynamics of Survival in Poor South African Households is a book full of nuggets the authorities would do well to keep in mind as they ponder ways to bolster the family.
© makatilemedia 06/2012