SARCHI Chair in Welfare and Social Development contribution to social policy in SA – looking back

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The South African story of developing and implementing a social welfare policy remains an inspiring one. It is a story that grew out of the 1976 Soweto Uprising which sparked renewed energy in the anti-apartheid movement. This rekindled spirit of resistance in South Africa came at a time when the apartheid government was facing a growing economic crisis, made worse by the global oil crisis and the international isolation of the state. This was also the time that mass labour action in South Africa experienced a resurgence and grassroots groups advocating for better education and living conditions found their voice.

It was at this time that Professor Patel was completing her Master’s in Social Work at West Michigan University in the United States as a Fulbright Scholar. This global exposure highlighted the limitations of micro-level, social treatment oriented approaches to bring about social change and her interests shifted to social policy, community action and development, and macro-practice. This was a personal turning point that would have far-reaching implications for South Africa’s welfare policy.

On returning to South Africa, Prof Patel became the organiser and editor of Grassroots Community Newspaper, which played a pivotal role in connecting local-level organisations nationally. This culminated in the establishment of the United Democratic Front (UDF) – an alliance of 600 grassroots civic organisations, women’s and youth organisations, trade unions, and religious organisations to oppose the government’s plans to grant pseudo-political rights to Indians, Coloureds, and urban Africans in a tri-cameral parliament. The UDF was not formally aligned with the liberation movements and represented and lobbied for both the minor and significant struggles of ordinary South Africans. The power of the UDF rested in the combined power and strength of mass opposition movements in collaboration with the trade unions that propelled the social-development agenda in the country.

In addition to being one of the founding members of the UDF, Prof Patel was also involved with the Concerned Social Workers (CSW). Concerned Social Workers was formed to oppose apartheid in the welfare field and a key project was to begin a dialogue in the profession about what a social-welfare system might look like in a non-racial and democratic South Africa.

This dovetailed with Prof Patel’s doctoral research on social-welfare policy options in a post-apartheid society. The research involved analyses of social welfare, development programmes of opposition movements, and the implications for future welfare policy options in a democratic society. Her hypothesis was that progressive grassroots organisations engaged in welfare programmes provided alternative models of social welfare in their vision, values, goals, and methods of practice, and that this might be useful in informing future social policies and social rights.

At this time the transition to democracy began with the unbanning of political organisations, which ushered in the negotiated settlement, the first democratic elections in 1994 and finally the adoption of the Bill of Rights and the South African Constitution in 1995.  Today, the rights-based approach to social welfare is a defining feature of South Africa’s welfare system.

The transition between 1990 and 1994 laid the foundation for the White Paper for Social Welfare process. During this period, many grassroots and professional organisations conducted research to set and influence the policy agenda. Prof Patel was involved in this process as she was mandated by a working group to produce a concept note on national sectorial forums and the need for such a forum in the welfare field.

This led to the first inclusive National Welfare Summit held in 1993, which later culminated in the establishment of the National Welfare Forum. The Welfare Forum played a key role in the national-policy process that resulted in the White Paper. This coincided with Prof Patel’s involvement in the National Children’s Rights Committee (NCRC), which advocated for the inclusion of children’s rights in the Bill of Rights. She also published her doctoral research on welfare policy options at this time. These three elements provided the conceptual foundation of the approach to social development that informed the White Paper.

Following the national elections and the installation of the Mandela government, new policies in keeping with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were developed in all spheres of society. In 1995, Prof Patel was invited by the Minister and Deputy Minister for Social Welfare to lead and manage the process of developing the White Paper for Social Welfare. In 1996, she was appointed Director General of Social Welfare. In this position Prof Patel was intimately involved in the drafting of the White Paper.

In view of the political contestation over the direction of social welfare in the Government of National Unity (including the former Afrikaner Nationalist Party) led by President Mandela, the national and provincial Ministers of social welfare reached an agreement regarding terms of reference for a participatory process of policy making.

An overall structure made up of a national committee with eight technical committees was established with participation from the government—both national- and state-level representatives—including non-profit and faith-based organisations, the National Welfare Forum, academics, and policy researchers. With this structure in place, Prof Patel was then tasked with crafting all of its reports into a comprehensive policy framework that contained a set of principles, guidelines, proposals, and recommendations.

This was published as an official Discussion Document, which was debated at a national consultative conference with members from more than 400 organisations in the country in attendance. Thereafter, the government published a Green Paper for public comment.

Revisions were made based on the extensive input to the process, and substantive issues were debated in the national committee and with political principals. A key party in this debate was the National Treasury, which was concerned about the cost implications of the proposals.

Initially there were delays in the adoption of the White Paper in view of political differences between the ANC and the NP. As DG, Prof Patel had the positional authority to manage and negotiate the adoption of the policy through the parliamentary processes. After much debate and more revisions, the policy was adopted in 1997, two years after the process was formally started.

The final White Paper that was adopted by parliament in 1997 was a negotiated document with many compromises. Policy proposals with significant fiscal implications were removed and replaced with recommendations for further policy proposals and research. However, policy proposals to develop and implement child-support grants were accepted in 1997 and implemented in 1998.

The White Paper for Welfare accomplished a number of social welfare goals. These include the expansion of social protection (i.e. cash transfers) between 1994 and 2014. Cash transfers to older persons, people with disabilities, and children now reach close to 40% of the poor.

It is now acknowledged to be one of the country’s most effective poverty-reduction programmes and has significant effects on reducing inequality. Social protection is fully publicly funded and remains one of South Africa’s greatest achievements in the implementation of developmental welfare.

However, progress in implementing welfare services was less impressive. Underfunding of welfare

services continued, and there was the crowding out of welfare services to expand social assistance.

The partnership model of service delivery between government and non-profit organisations (NPOs) remains contested as NPOs are underfunded. The courts have also ruled against the government and have cautioned against the abrogation of state responsibility for welfare services, which is a constitutional obligation.

The shift from a social-treatment approach to social development was only partially achieved. A lack of institutional capacity, resource constraints to implement the policy remains are key constraints along with resistance to change and a lack of clear direction about how to implement the developmental approach.

After Prof Patel left the government, she spent four years as Deputy Vice Chancellor and Vice Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Since 2002, she has been at the University of Johannesburg as a social-work educator and a social development researcher. Now, her career has come full circle and she now studies the implementation of the White Paper among other contemporary social-development issues in a changing global and regional context. She was for a period involved in the Ministerial Committee tasked with reviewing the White Paper for welfare.

Throughout her career Prof Patel has been led by a desire to develop solutions to the problems that ordinary people face and her career has always been guided by an early lesson that she learned in her doctoral research: “Learning from below, from what people are actually doing in practice, can provide powerful insights for how to find solutions to complex social issues.”