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SWAZILAND: Relief for the elderly as pensions go up


Photo: IRIN
Although new pensions welcome, many elderly still need to work to make ends meet
MBABANE, 21 November 2005 (PlusNews) - Gogo ("Granny") Mkwanaze, 72, knows what she is going to do with the extra money she will be getting when government revamps its pension system for the elderly.

"My grandchildren need shoes and new school uniforms - the schools open in just two months. I am raising those children all by myself, you know," she smiles.

Her generosity toward her seven-year-old grandson Sipho and her 11-year-old granddaughter Imbali may be admirable and even necessary, given the absence of the children's parents, but the government's decision to raise by 60 percent the amount of money given to each Swazi over the age of 60 was based on the growing needs of the elderly.

Their welfare has deteriorated with the dwindling number of traditional multi-generational Swazi homesteads, which used to provide for all family members, and a declining economy.

"I am lucky that there are some boys who live nearby who are willing to plough my field - I give them mangoes from the garden. But I saw an old granny like me who was trying to plough her field all by herself - I never imagined I would ever see such a sight," said Gogo Mkwanaze, shaking her head in dismay.

A plan drawn up by Health and Social Welfare Minister Sipho Shongwe and approved by parliament will increase pensions for the elderly from R120 (US $20) to R200 ($33), while payments previously made on a quarterly basis will now be made monthly when the new system kicks in at the end of the year.

Parliament has set aside R30 million ($5 million) for the initiative to cover the estimated 43,000 Swazis over the age of 60, out of a population of about one million.

That figure may remain stable for some years due to the alarming impact of HIV/AIDS: over 40 percent of the sexually active adult population is HIV positive, and life expectancy has dropped from 46 years a decade ago to 36 years today.

The toll taken by AIDS has also meant that younger family members cannot support their elderly parents, whose twilight years are burdened by having to raise grandchildren after their children die.

In an effort to raise cash, elderly women increasingly come to towns to trade homemade crafts or produce from their farms.

At the Manzini Market in central Swaziland, Agnes Masuku, 60, sells large wooden spoons and cooking utensils she and her nephew make. "The trees that provide us with wood are fewer these days; one day there will be none. I am glad government is raising our pensions," Masuku said.

But she is realistic and knows the new monthly allotment will not go far. "What is R200 a month when a loaf of brown bread costs R3.50? A five-kilo bag of maize meal costs R22, and a litre of milk is R8.50. Bus fares are also up so high this year."

Mkuluza Zwane, director of the Umtfunti Old Age Association, an NGO that lobbies government on behalf of the elderly, said, "There has been a pressing need for years to raise the allotment for the elderly. A person cannot get by on R200, but if they have a place to live and a garden, the allotment is a valuable additional subsidy."

Zwane said homelessness was generally not a problem afflicting the elderly in Swaziland because they had family homesteads, even if these were mud and stick structures without electricity or running water.

"The twin problems of urban migration, when the younger generation go to where the jobs are thought to be, and AIDS, which is decimating the younger generation, have drained the vitality out of the traditional Swazi homestead," commented Sylvester Mahlalela, a community volunteer in rural Mliba in northern Swaziland.

"The elderly can be found living alone there. Historically, the elderly were surrounded by relatives who took care of them," he said.

Transportation costs, which bedevil Masuku when she tries to get her goods to market, were a worry for all the elderly, said Mahlalela. When the social welfare ministry compiled its new pension policy, the Umtfunti Old Age Association urged reforms to bring money to the elderly, rather than compelling them to travel distances to collect their allotments.

"The elderly used up a lot of their pensions going to regional centres, where they were not paid cash but given cheques. The elderly could not afford bank account charges, and they lived far from banks. It was hard for them to find places that would cash their cheques in rural areas," Mahlalela explained.

As part of the new system, the Swaziland Post and Telecommunications Corporation, which controls the nation's phone network and post offices, will give pensioners cash payments at community centres, charging government R1 per pensioner for the service. The elderly also have the option of collecting three months' stipends per quarterly visit.

The new pension system is being hailed as a small victory that was a long time coming. "But it shows Swazis still honour their elders," said Mahlalela.


Theme(s): (IRIN) Economy

[ENDS]

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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