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Weighing up South Africa’s family policy: what does and doesn’t work

Single parent and extended families are the dominant family forms in South Africa. shutterstock

South Africa is one of a small number of developing countries that’s formulated a national policy focused on families. A family policy, broadly defined, refers to everything a government does to promote the well-being of families, such as social grants, family services, or social housing.

The country’s policy – known as the White Paper on Families – has three priorities. They are promoting healthy family life, strengthening the family and preserving the family. The intention of the policy is to promote and support families, many of whom are currently facing huge financial and social pressures.

Implementation of the policy is supposed to result in well-functioning and resilient families able to nurture, support and care for their family members.

But a policy on paper is only as good as its implementation and monitoring. Our review of the implementation of the policy suggests the country faces challenges getting it off the ground. The biggest relate to capacity, political will and funding.

We identified some critical gaps that need attention. These include clarification of intended outcomes, the execution of robust monitoring, evaluation and reporting systems, the allocation of realistic budgets, employing staff with the right knowledge and skills, and renewed political will to promote the plan.

What works and doesn’t

The White Paper goes some way to acknowledging the historical context and current key factors that negatively affect families in the country. These include the apartheid migrant labour system, which separated families; massive unemployment, persistently high poverty rates and income inequality, the HIV epidemic, and high levels of interpersonal violence.

It seeks to enable broad family support through the state welfare system as well as non-governmental services. The idea is to ensure that families don’t “get lost” in the maze of social policies, and their well-being is explicitly promoted.

The policy lists a variety of family structures. Nevertheless it remains too skewed towards heterosexual, nuclear, and marriage-based family norms. Another problem is that it’s vague and contradictory in its formulations. This will make policy implementation more difficult.

More attention needs to be paid to aligning the White Paper with realities of the everyday lives of families. One such reality is that single parent and extended families are the dominant family forms.

Policy improvements also need to focus on the integration of services. And the importance of training, supervision and coaching of both officials and front-line service workers can’t be over emphasised.

Gaps that need filling

Our review combined literature and document review, consultation and roundtable reportage. We didn’t find evidence that lessons learnt from training that’s been done at national level has cascaded down to local government levels and non-governmental service agencies. There is no evidence that this is happening to a sufficient degree. Rectifying this is critical.

Clarity of information - on matters like staff numbers and budgets – is also missing. Budgets appear to be inadequate and are not aligned with a strategic plan or an implementation plan. And there doesn’t appear to be a separate budget to implement the policy.

Another area of weakness is that there has been no consistent performance monitoring of staff or evaluation of the programmes against established or standardised metrics.

Family forums – a key tool of the policy – have been established at National and Provincial levels. But there’s no standardised reporting. Where it does exist it’s unaudited, making it difficult to assess what the outputs and outcomes are. Interest in these forums has declined and there is little to no coordination between provincial and local level forums.

We found that South Africa’s approach to family policy fills an important knowledge gap as there is a dearth of research on family policies in the global South compared to the North. But, the broad net that it casts – incorporating other policies of various departments – fails to make clear the synergies and strategies that the country should be working towards. And coordination and integration are left unspecified.

The White Paper endorses a combination of private and public support for families. But it falls short of clearly identifying priorities in promoting family and social cohesion. It also creates a capacity issue for itself – especially in monitoring and evaluation of implementation.

Empowering families

Looking forward, an audit of the family-focused interventions and support provided across different parts of the government would, we believe, be a productive first step to assess what family assistance South Africa is currently provided, what resources are allocated for this purpose and how this might be used for maximum effect. Loss of fiscal resources through corruption and mismanagement has eroded much needed resources for family well-being.

It would also help develop the right metrics to measure success.

In addition, critical questions need to be asked about what the best ways are to empower families to tackle the country’s inequality gaps.

Thomas Englert, a research assistant at the Centre for Social Development in Africa, collaborated on the research and this article.

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