“There were no proper consultations or sufficient time given to NPOs to prepare for the cut in subsidies; no roundtable discussion to ascertain what programmes there were within NPOs which spoke to the areas that government are now prioritising, such as homelessness and substance abuse. There is no plan to absorb the social workers and no plan for the beneficiaries, despite the fact that, if given the necessary support, we could actually help DSD address some of their revised priorities.” – Ms Bhengu Shongwe, General Manager of Central Gauteng Mental Health
A BAD CASE OF DEJA-VU
The dark cloud of the Life Esidimeni tragedy still hangs low over all our heads. While families continue to mourn the deaths of their loved ones, waiting for justice to be served, the country continues to reflect on the tragedy with a sense of enduring shock and disbelief. The anger and pain associated with the tragedy is amplified by the bitter knowledge that one of the greatest human rights violations in post-apartheid South Africa was perpetrated by our very own government, the supposed custodians of our globally-lauded, human rights-based constitution.
It is by now public knowledge that earlier in April, the Department of Social Development [DSD] announced to various parts of the Gauteng NPO sector that it would drastically be reducing its funding, with immediate effect. Since then, organisations have been receiving Service Level Agreements often indicating cuts of between 60% and 100%, making what all hoped to be an idle threat a painful reality. These immense cuts to funding are impacting on organisations on two broad levels – firstly, on the beneficiaries of services, who face severely disrupted, reduced or even completely terminated services, and secondly on the staff of these organisations, who face redundancies, unemployment and serious financial hardship at very short notice.
In this piece, we focus on the impacts the funding cuts have had on our four Mental Health Societies in Gauteng – Central, Northern, Vaal and Laudium Mental Health – and show how, just taking into consideration the severe impacts of the funding cuts on these four mental health organisations – we are well and truly staring down the barrel of a government gun again, with government’s finger firmly on the trigger, again. The outlook is bleak for all parties involved, to say the least.
IMPACTS ON BENEFICAIRIES
Ms Bhengu Shongwe, General Manager of Central Gauteng Mental Health, says the following:
“More than 10 000 service beneficiaries will be left out in the cold. This includes persons who benefit from our protective workshop programmes, families, and other stakeholders who receive services from us on an annual basis. Removing these resources from them means that they would potentially face neglect, exposure, abuse and a loss of purpose in life. Foster care parents will also be left unsupported, receiving no vital training or supervision”
Ms Yvonne Coertze, Director of Vaal Mental Health, whose organisation has received a 61% funding cut, explains that:
“At this stage the Children’s Court and several other NPOs, including Child Welfare, are referring people to us for psychosocial, therapeutic services and support, along with parental training. We have two depression support groups, one in our Sebokeng office and one in the Vanderbijlpark office. Our offices are a haven for these people and their families. Families do not always understand their relatives who live with mental health conditions, and our services contribute to helping these families cope. We render free services to persons with disabilities, and the community depends on our services. Cutting our budgets will disadvantage all these people, and around 4 000 persons with mental health conditions will be without services”
Laudium Mental Health, which faces a 100% cut in funding, will be feeling the effects very deeply. Ms Adilla Soondka, Director, explains that various areas of their operations will be severely affected:
“Within our protective workshops, we will struggle to take in new persons in need of services. Around 100 beneficiaries who currently receive support from social workers will go unmonitored. Psychological counselling and group sessions will be affected, and support for parents will no longer be provided. Our work in terms of supporting beneficiaries with SASSA grants will also be affected adversely. All intakes at our offices, for example assessments, crisis interventions, individual counselling and therapy, and group therapy, have all come to a complete standstill. Social workers will also not be able to facilitate any further admissions of clients with substance abuse problems or facilitate referrals to rehabilitation centres”
As for their community outreach work:
“Our community projects will be severely affected – for example our programmes related to HIV/AIDS, child protection week, disability forums, 16 days of activism against child abuse and GBV. We will also not be able to continue promoting health and wellness within the community. Our school services at primary and secondary schools, where we do programmes aimed at teenage pregnancy, bullying and where we provide occupational therapy services for schools will come to an end. All therapy work within schools, with individuals and families, will just be left hanging in the air in areas such as Laudium, Atteridgeville, Centurion and Lotus. Our work at clinics will also be affected, where we run mental health awareness and prevention programmes and interventions for families. Our services provided through home visits will also be affected negatively, where we support families who deal with mental illnesses and facilitate placements to homes and institutions”
Mr Moses Mahlangu, Director of North Gauteng Mental Health, says:
“If there is no DSD funding, services will be severely affected. For example, we have two protective workshops – one in Mamelodi and one in Soshanguve. Both workshops have four staff members and around 40 beneficiaries, who will all be affected. We also have two aftercare service in Mamelodi, where 150 beneficiaries receive services; the same goes for Soshanguve, which also has 150 beneficiaries. We also have an advocacy department, which focuses on public education. We reach 1000+ beneficiaries through this department’s work annually. The work is done via social media, face to face awareness events, corporates, school and radio presentations. All this will now be affected because of DSD”
IMPACTS ON ORGANISATIONS AND STAFF
Ms Bhengu Shongwe, General Manager of Central Gauteng Mental Health, says:
“This move by DSD means that we are facing the closure of our head office in Johannesburg, our offices in Soweto, in Thembisa, Springs, Katlehong and in Daveyton; virtually our entire operation will disappear overnight. Only a few programmes will remain, which will need to be led by care workers, who require management and social worker support, which will no longer be available. We would lose around 100 members of staff, including social workers and social auxiliary workers”
Mr Moses Mahlangu, Director of North Gauteng Mental Health, says:
“We have seven social work offices around Tshwane, which all provide services to a large number of beneficiaries as we are the only mental health organisation around Tshwane. If DSD cuts funding, 12 social workers and 13 social auxiliary workers will lose their jobs, and over 800 foster care cases and around 518 persons with mental health conditions, who are supervised by these members of staff will lose services. Overall, we employ 85 members of staff, who are all breadwinners. DSD’s actions mean that 85 families will have no food, children will not be able to go to school, and families won’t be able to buy clothes. Their mental health is already affected by this whole debacle… Imagine the road ahead for them?”
As for the impact on their staff, Ms Coertze from Vaal Mental Health says that:
“We would manage to keep our offices open for approximately eight months. Thereafter four social workers (myself included), one auxiliary worker and one administrative official will be unemployed. We will then ironically be part of those who do not contribute to SARS, which is the supposed origin of the situation we find ourselves in. Staff members will be affected both personally and professionally. Like all other working people, our staff depend on their salaries to survive, to enable them to come to the office, to work productively, and to fulfil personal commitments such as paying the rent, buying food, supporting their children and looking after other dependents”
Ms Adilla Soondka from Laudium Mental Health states:
“Something people need to realise is that our social workers are bound by ethical codes of conduct, derived from the South African Council for Social Service Professions, which outline how professional services should be rendered to our clients. The way in which social workers are being forced to terminate their services because of DSD’s abrupt funding cuts is a gross human rights violation and is highly unethical”
SO WHAT NEXT?
Whilst this yet-again reckless move by government has been widely condemned and is being met with much resistance and criticism from NPOs, and possibly even legal action from Civil Society, the South African Federation for Mental Health [SAFMH] wishes to add its voice to the outcry. Having been on the frontlines of the Life Esidimeni tragedy and witnessed first-hand the devastation left in the wake of a tragedy caused by a government department who refused to listen to the warnings, we believe strongly that there is simply no excuse for such careless actions from government in 2023.
Given the lives lost and the extent of criticism levelled at government because of the Life Esidimeni tragedy, one could be forgiven for assuming that important lessons about the treatment of vulnerable populations and the importance of healthy partnership working with NPOs would have been learned by now. Surely, a government guilty of such irresponsible actions would do everything in its power to ensure that it never, ever, again knowingly places vulnerable people at risk. And that it respects the crucial role that NPOs play in the care of vulnerable populations at community level, recognising them as equal partners, working together with government to attain the lofty ideals set out in our constitution, the various pieces of policy and legislation underpinning it, and also the various treaties to which South Africa are signatories to [such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities]. Yet here we are again, teetering on the brink of yet another government-inflicted human rights debacle. It truly does seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same for us here in South Africa.
In the Health Ombud’s 2016 report into the Life Esidimeni tragedy, it was stated that the actions of government had been chaotic, with an utter disregard for human rights, specifically the right to dignity and other enabling rights such as the rights to life, freedom and health. The actions of the Department of Social Development that we are witnessing now mimic these trends all too closely. Where are the lessons that should have been learned? Where is the respect for human rights and dignity? And why do NPOs and vulnerable populations keep facing the brunt of government’s poor decision-making and apparent disregard for health and wellbeing? There are many questions to be answered. And corrective measures to be taken to assist the NPOs who are needing to make staff redundant, reduce services and even close their doors. At this point, SAFMH stands together with all the NPOs who have been affected, and we demand that DSD’s irrational and irresponsible policy changes and decisions be halted and reversed. Immediately.
The government of South Africa should know better than to play Russian Roulette with the lives of vulnerable people. Let’s hope that DSD will be as quick to address these issues as they were to pull the plug on NPOs’ funding.