SWAZILAND: The elderly have no time to retire

Sunday, September 2, 2007

At a time when Swaziland's elderly are taking on an increasingly vital role as household heads or caregivers to AIDS orphans, they often slip through the nets of humanitarian organisations, and government stipends are too small to cover basic needs.

"The elderly are rife for exploitation, and they are being exploited by a society that requires them to do demanding work, regardless of their age or infirmities," said Thandi Maphalala, a social welfare worker in the commercial city of Manzini, 35km southeast of the Swazi capital, Mbabane.

Although relatively few Swazis know their HIV status, more than a quarter of all sexually active people are infected with HIV, and life expectancy has dropped to 31 years.

Largely due to HIV/AIDS, the number of orphans has skyrocketed since 2000, reaching 100,000, according to the United Nations Children's Agency (UNICEF). "The crisis is likely to worsen, as HIV prevalence rates among 20-to-30-year-olds are approaching 50 percent."

About 15 percent of Swaziland's one million people are older than 49, and 3.4 percent are 65 or older. People who have lived beyond 49 - statistically the upper cut-off point for the "sexually active" demographic - are mostly free of HIV.

Rather than being supported by their grown children, which has been the cultural norm in Swaziland, the elderly are now required to nurse their ailing offspring.

"Taking care of an AIDS patient is extremely difficult. On top of that, the elderly now have to run a household - that means they must go to some distant spot to fetch water and firewood; they must cook, clean and raise grandchildren," said Maphalala. "All this comes at a time when they should be slowing down and enjoying their golden years."

Meagre incomes

Rev Jabulani Dlamini, who works in the Luve area, 60km north of Manzini, often drops in on his elderly parishioners to give them moral support and provide donations of food and other essentials.

"These good people went through all the work of raising children. Now, with the AIDS-related deaths, they must do it all over again and raise their children's children, who may also be infected by HIV. Who gives them assistance, other than a little charity? And that is not enough."

Dlamini noted that the days when the extended family lived together in a single multi-generational homestead had gone. About 80 percent of Swazis still live in rural areas, but families have been fragmented into smaller households.

"There is no one to look after these good people. How many times have I found a granny sitting in the dark because there is no candle, and hungry because there is no food, and dirty because she is too weak to fetch water?" he asked.

When the government finally raised monthly stipends for the elderly from US$12 to $15 earlier this year, the increment came just as food prices were spiraling beyond affordability.

A 10kg bag of maizemeal, barely enough to feed a family of four for a month, now costs almost $6, while two litres of cooking oil costs about $3. In an ongoing drought the country recorded its worst-ever harvest this year, and about 40 percent of Swaziland's population is facing acute food and water shortages.

Some food aid

A record number of households receive food assistance from agencies like the World Food Programme. Humanitarian aid workers said there were no reports of widespread starvation in the country but, indisputably, there was hunger and suffering.

"My grandchildren are fed, they are even well-fed, at school or at the neighbourhood Care Point [funded by the UN Children's Agency, UNICEF]. It is only one meal a day, and only five days a week, but it is godsend for them," said Gogo (Granny) Tsela, who lives in a stick-and-mud shack outside Manzini.

"But no one prepares meals for the elderly. I am at home with my little bit of porridge, if I am lucky enough to have that." A black iron pot of white maizemeal porridge was cooking over an open fire in her yard, augmented by wild spinach that had managed to survive the drought.

Every fortnight Tsela receives maizemeal, cooking oil and beans from the local food aid distribution point, which she shares with her two granddaughters, the children of her deceased daughter. Their father has left the family.

Like many other elderly people, she has no cash support other than her small monthly allowance from the government, which arrives erratically and often requires a long, expensive and bus trip to fetch.

The government subsidises four urban hospitals and a network of rural clinics but user fees are still required, and medication must be purchased. Although medicines come at a reduced price, chronic shortages often make them unavailable. This means they have to be bought at commercial pharmacies, where the prices are mostly unaffordable.

Formal-sector employment stands at 27 percent and pensions are not always guaranteed. "Don't talk about pensions; only a few people have pensions," said Amos Shabangu, a retired bus driver. He received no compensation after leaving his job because his employer lied to him when he said he had paid into a national provident fund in Shabangu's name.

A farm revisited

When IRIN visited another grandmother in similar circumstances, Gogo Nhlabatsi, in April, she was all alone on her isolated farm near Manzini and very worried about how she would support five grandchildren, aged 7 to 12.

The recent rain had come too late to save the stunted maize crop. "There is nothing, nothing," she said, gazing bleakly over the withered brown maize stalks.

Desperation led Nhlabatsi and her grandchildren to comb through every metre of field, salvaging whatever they could. The dwarfed cobs yielded only a few bags of kernels, but every little bit helped.

It was a struggle Nhlabatsi had not expected to endure so late in life. "I will find rest in my grave," she said.

Source: IRIN
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