Gender activists are outraged by the finance minister's side comments on government grants during his budget speech.
There was a titter when Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba paused during his budget speech last week to say: "The child support grant, 'kwakuthiwe le ngakithi yimali yeqolo ... akengithi ukuyilungisa ... bakwethu asisebenziseni igrant ngendlela efanele."
In direct translation, "imali yeqolo", means "back money", thereby suggesting that women "lie down on their backs" to fall pregnant and so get government child support grants.
For a moment there, listening to these words, my heart beat faster and I froze. Did I just hear you right, Mr Minister?
So much said in a few words. About women and women's bodies. By a man. By a political figure.
I was to later learn that this particular comment was never part of the official budget speech. It was the minister's own personal comment. Added at that very moment because he deemed it fit and appropriate.
Yet it was offensive and demeaning.
There is a clear gender bias in the minister's words. More than 12.1-million children depended on child grants in 2017, according to the South African Social Security Agency. Instead, the stereotype he reinforces is that the child grant is money given to women for "using their backs", an unwarranted reward for sexual services rendered. The child grant is now about a woman and her sexuality.
This is deeply disturbing.
The nation's absent fathers are no joke
It is a careless statement on Gigaba's part. One that takes away the purpose, value and importance of the child grant support system. What the minister overlooks is that it cost R538 to feed a child a "nutritiously complete" diet in 2016, according to data of the food price barometer of the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action. And although this social grant is hardly enough to cover these costs, it is a much-needed contribution that assists many marginalised women to raise their children.
In its report, Family contexts, Child Support Grants and Well-Being in South Africa, the University of Johannesburg's Centre for Social Development in Africa found that among a sample of about 3 000 children in two provinces, 97% of caregivers were women. Meanwhile, three-quarters of fathers were absent from households. Of those absent fathers, only 40% provided financial support for their children. Further, at least 87% of women who received social grants were unemployed. This speaks to the continued need for the child support grant.
The minister's remarks further perpetuate gender binary thinking and stereotyping. The sexuality and body that is being ostracised is that of a woman. Gigaba unwittingly fails to acknowledge the role of two people, parents, involved in the process of making a baby and who should be equally involved in raising the child. The role of the man is ignored.
And I suppose it follows that it is the woman who is to blame for failing to prevent the pregnancy and for not terminating it. She probably wanted the baby so she could get the money, right?
The (now) R390 a month child support grant.
Amid all the optimistic euphoria around the budget speech, we must not lose sight of the country's pervasive problems. Those problems include gender inequality, gender stereotyping and discrimination. These are challenges that we have failed to deal with through our transitional justice processes, so gender inequalities continue to challenge us. The urgent need for gender social norms transformation cannot be understated in the current political transition.
And, as President Cyril Ramaphosa solidifies his government's strategy, he must not ignore the systematic gender biases and inequalities prevalent in our country. The ANC led by Ramaphosa needs to hold Gigaba to account.
Judging by the look on his face and his subsequent laugh, Gigaba probably thought he was being humorous. But, in trying to make the nation laugh, he displayed his ignorance of prevailing gender dynamics and realities in the country.
Gigaba must apologise
Gigaba, through his own utterances, has offended women. He took a crucial issue and made a joke out of it. A very distasteful joke. Now he must apologise to the women of South Africa.
It would be irresponsible of him and his political party to let this go. He is a political figure and ought to take responsibility for his actions. Although his words reflect the kind of patriarchal society we live in, we expect a different standard from holders of public office, especially in this new dispensation.
Political leaders are representatives of the people and in many ways set the tone and rhythm of societal dynamics and trends.
Will the ANC ensure he is held to account?
The silence from society is deafening, which makes everyone complicit with the minister's words and behaviour.
Gigaba, the women of South Africa deserve an apology.
Nonhlanhla Sibanda-Moyo is a gender specialist at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. Follow her on twitter @Nonhlanhla17
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