Gender, Households & Care

Theme Leader: Open         


A prevailing ethic of care is constituted around how much care is required in a particular society (the intensity of care needed), how and where care is obtained (public, state or market- provided care) and who it is that provides care (the feminisation of care). Welfare policy in South Africa places the well-being of the frail and needy on the shoulders of individuals and their communities thereby recasting the relationship between families, citizens, communities and the state. An ethic of care depends greatly on the identification of women with care work, rather than support from distant state apparatus. Exhibiting what Mosoetsa (2011) has called the agency of the poor, women challenge the assumption that ‘the poor’ are victims waiting for handouts and instead form associations of their own to meet their communities’ needs or, at a minimum, ameliorate the impact of poverty on their lives.


This ‘ethic of care’  involves an active citizenship; an interconnectedness with others in order to build dense societal relations. An ethic of care becomes one of the few reliable sources of care in the South African context where social welfare or development is skewed in favour of social grants rather than care services. But the assumption that families are capable of caring for their most vulnerable members, such as children, the disabled and the elderly, frail is evidently misguided. Instead the needs of these members of society are ignored, neglected or left to be dealt with by family or communities. Thus, an ethic of care emerges from and is shaped by a particular context.  


An important theme in this cluster is how the state responds to the fragility of households under changing economic conditions. What this suggests is that we move away from viewing poverty merely as a lack of income. Instead of such a static view of poverty and assuming poverty has one, enduring cause we have to consider social and macro-economic processes.  Trade, fiscal and industrial policies affect employment, just like public policies on health, education, housing, and sanitation affect the social and physical infrastructure. Further, in the words of Jayati Ghosh, a static view of poverty “means that no link is even hinted at between the enrichment of some and the impoverishment of others, as if the rich and the poor somehow inhabit different social worlds with no economic interdependence at all, and that the rich do not rely upon the labour of the poor. … Therefore the idea is that these larger issues need not be addressed at all, and instead the only dilemma is of whether to choose a particular poverty alleviation scheme or just opt for distributing cash.” Ghosh (2010: 854). The South African case illustrates this clearly:  while spending on social assistance has grown from 1.9% of GDP in 2001 to 3.8% in 2011 inequality has increased from 0.66 in 1993 to 0.7 in 2008[1]. 


[1] Woolard and Leibbrandt 2010:13 and SA Survey 2009/2010 (SA Institute of Race Relations)​

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