Facing a financial crisis, the government of Swaziland announced yesterday that it will be suspending this quarter’s pensions payments for the elderly for the time being.  It hopes to use the savings achieved by this to pay for the schooling costs of orphans and vulnerable children and to pay the pensions later on.

Unfortunately, the announcement will affect many older Swazis . A news report by IRIN mentions that “about 5 percent of Swaziland’s approximately one million people are 60 years old or older and eligible for pensions. Roughly two-thirds of Swazis live below the poverty line.”  It adds that: “the pension stipends are indispensable for many of the elderly, as there is no alternative form of social security and private sector pensions are rare. The grants were increased two years ago from $21 per quarter to $85 and are paid four times a year.”   The report also highlights the story of  Gogo Khumalo, a 70-year-old widower in rural Mliba, who is  “the primary caregiver of five grandchildren aged between 5 and 19 years, whose mother left the homestead to seek employment in town after her husband, Khumalo’s son-in-law, died a few years ago.”   She says that “You cannot live on such money [as government provides] but it can help you survive.”

Not surprisingly, the decision has been controversial.  According to the report,  “Mbabane [the capital] recently saw the largest anti-government protests in years, sparked by the construction of “vanity projects” like a new $1 billion international airport, built at the expense of social services.”  It adds that “teachers, nurses and students made up the bulk of the 5,000 to 7,000 protesters, and the link between using the grants of the elderly – who often provide care, food and shelter for children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic – to pay for their school fees instead, was not lost on them.”  The report ends by quoting Solomon Thwala, a primary school teacher, as saying that “we need to set priorities. Taking from the elderly to meet the needs of orphans and vulnerable children is stealing from Peter to pay Paul.” She adds: “there are sources of funding other than putting the elderly in jeopardy.”

Share your thoughts on this developments with IAHSA.  As noted in our previous posting, governments always have difficulties balancing the various needs of their citizens.  Has your country experiences a similar debate?

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