The Unfortunate Demise of an African Social Protective System-Extended Families

The burden on African governments to provide social protective nets can be overwhelming on constrained budgets and limited resources especially with shocks in the form of natural events like cyclone Idai and the Coronavirus playing havoc to the limited institutions of social protection.

This burden has become highly skewed on the shoulders of African governments and as such governments have struggled to cope because everything becomes relegated to governments taking responsibility away from families, communities and institutions such as businesses. Of course this is not to say governments should not undergo the accountability test. However to say responsibility for social nets rest with governments solely is a very unAfrican assertion from a traditional point of view. African governments have failed to provide all the necessary comprehensive social systems because our African societies are not built this way and the concept of state social assistance is a relatively new concept although a valid one.

Traditional African structures had built-in protective social mechanisms and Zimbabwe is not an exception. Our Failure as African people is our inability to sift the groundnuts from the groundnut skins and after bathing the baby throwing away the baby with the water. We have taken on so much of the other world view and forgot our own world view. Years of colonialism negated our self belief to the back burner such that we failed to see the fallacy of destroying a fail safe protective system-The Extended Family Network.

Take a snapshot of any household in Zimbabwe now – be it in the villages or in towns and cities. It’s a sad scenario to the institution named the extended family. That institution has died and the advantages it brought died along with that institution.

The extended family is the collection of family that includes uncles, aunties, nieces and nephews, grandparents and grandchildren of all generations. It took the form of these people staying together in one compound or one homestead or near each other in a cluster of homesteads. As children moved out and went to the city and did well they would invite those with less opportunities from home to come and stay with them and find them jobs or take them to school and even pay school fees up to university. Those given opportunities would give others opportunities sometimes failing to upgrade themselves while upgrading extended family members-thus the cycle continued. The extended family network meant families shared the food burden during droughts , took care of orphans and the older people in the family structure. Yes government could chip in here and there but it was a flourishing workable solution.

Then something changed. The scourge of HIV/AIDS literally wiped whole families out of bread winners leaving child-headed families running what was left of families with grandmothers carrying the brunt of the burden. Unemployment took its toll and the Zimbabwean landscapes shifted. The economic situation deteriorated and everyone looked to his immediate own and so our extended family networks disentangled together with the fights for inheritance, the sexual abuses prevalent in the system did not help.

Family feuds and jealousy helped to curtail this system and instead our society became more reliant on BEAM to pay school fees for our less privileged and on the social welfare department to take care of orphans and our older people. The Aids Levy and NSSA were all programs introduced by government under social security schemes. Society stopped to own it’s on problems and everything became negated to government and unfortunately the burden is now too much and overwhelming for government.

There has never been a better time than now during this Covid-19 pandemic to resuscitate our tradition of caring for each other beyond our immediate families. If we wait for government to do everything the burden might fail to be met as governments the world over are struggling with the depth of need and despair due to Covid-19.

Source: Sefelepelo Sebata*

*Sefelepelo Sebata is the Project Coordinator Rise N Shine Trust

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