Eastern Cape, South Africa - Across the hills of the Eastern Cape, goats and cows graze between traditional isiXhosa huts. Overhead, grey clouds threaten to break the heavy humidity that hangs over this community. Nearly 20 women have gathered at a rural community centre to share their stories. They all have a similar theme: how they became breadwinners and parents to their grandchildren in their old age.

The Eastern Cape is the birthplace of South African heroes such as Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu and Thabo Mbeki, and yet, remains one of the poorest regions in the country.

We, as women of this area, took a decision to support one another - Nozukhile Hadi

Nozukhile Hadi is a 60-year-old community leader and grandmother from the small community of Tabase, in the Mthatha municipality. Her red jersey matches the blanket wrapped around her legs. Her face is lined with wrinkles, but her voice projects loudly across the room.

In a prayer, Nozukhile Hadi, 60, a community leader and grandmother from Tabase, asks for divine intervention.

The women gathered here have become parents for a second time - they look after their grandchildren, whose parents have gone to seek work in the cities. In addition to this, the women also run Sinovuyo Disabled Children Centre, where they look after children with disabilities in the community.

At a time of high levels of unemployment in the Eastern Cape, social grants are often used to support entire extended families and communities.

“Our grants are not sufficient,” says Hadi, referring to the pension and child-support grants on which many of the women raise their grandchildren. “We want to fight poverty, but it is difficult.” She points to her stomach. “Silambile. We are hungry,” she says. The poverty to which Hadi refers means a life of living hand to mouth surviving mainly on social grants and what they can produce through gardening, beading and baking bread. Most live without electricity and running water.

The women of Tabase offer a snapshot of the struggles and the tenacity of elderly women across the country. According to the country’s 2011 census, until the age of 60, households tend to be male-dominated across South Africa. But the same data, together with the 2015 General Household Survey, reveals that this changes with age as women become family breadwinners across all nine provinces in the country.

Essentially, grandmothers are becoming parents twice, using their meagre monthly pensions (about $113) and child support grants (about $27) to support both their children, who are unable to find work, as well as their grandchildren.

Female breadwinners over the age of 60, the age of eligibility for a pension, make up nearly 11 percent of South African households, or 1.5 million households run by grandmothers. Testimonies from the women of Tabase reveal that their husbands are dying from silicosis, a lung disease from inhaling silica in the mines, falling victim to violent crime, or becoming slaves to alcoholism or unemployment.

Indeed, the country’s crime statistics paint a morbid picture, with 122 murders in Mthatha in 2016, making it the precinct with the second highest murder rates in the Eastern Cape.

“My husband lost his mind in the mines,” says Nonzezile Mkunga. “He was mentally disturbed when he finally came home.” Mkunga’s husband’s mental health could most likely have been influenced by the inhumane working conditions of mineworkers in South Africa where falling rocks, poor pay, long hours and crude living conditions are still a daily reality.

When Mkunga’s husband later died from untreated diabetes, her family received no compensation for his years of work with the mining company. Mkunga joined the ranks of elderly matriarchs fighting for her family’s dignity amid abject poverty.

Apartheid geography together with state neglect has left large swaths of rural South Africa without water and electricity, and a fragmented health care system

Apartheid aftereffects

Sinethemba Sidloyi, a sociologist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, grew up in Ngangelizwe Township in Mthatha, a region with the highest poverty rates in the Eastern Cape province. She, too, was raised by her grandmother, and began asking questions as she witnessed teenage pregnancies, drug abuse and high-school dropout rates in her community. She became part of the 23 percent to complete high school and the 2 percent to obtain post-graduate tertiary education in the Eastern Cape, going on to conduct her Sociology PhD in the livelihood strategies of the elderly.

“I was curious to understand what was responsible for this familial structure [in Mthatha] and what implications this had on both the lives of the elderly and the dependents,” she says.

Sidloyi found many reasons why women become breadwinners in their old age.

The main one is apartheid and its socio-economic policies that continue to shape and reshape the lives and livelihoods of black South Africans, particularly those at the bottom of the economic pyramid - Sinethemba Sidloyi

This rupture of the family structure gave rise to polygamous relationships, whereby migrant men found partners elsewhere, meaning that the families they had left behind could no longer be sure of receiving the remittances the men had previously sent home. Sidloyi argues that the role of the female breadwinner, both financially and emotionally, was born largely out of this dynamic.

The high levels of unemployment have also culminated in idleness, frustration and often, violent crime.

Surviving on grants

Today, both the young and elderly women of Mthatha lose their husbands in other ways: to unemployment and the listless days of futile job hunting that turns into job waiting. The 2011 census data reveals that the Eastern Cape province has a mere 26 percent employment rate.

Unemployment is a painful experience - Nozukhile Hadi

“Our children are away in big cities, but they don’t find work. We need to use our grant money to support them and their children.”

For these reasons, grandmothers are often left to support both their children, who have left to seek work elsewhere, and their children’s children. The numbers are enlightening: 58 percent of elderly female breadwinners look after a child under the age of 17. This is true in Tabase, yet here the women also look after children who are unrelated to them. An 11-year-old girl with cerebral palsy lies in the arms of one of the grandmothers. The disorder means that her body is not fully formed and she is the size of a two-year-old. Porridge is gently fed into her mouth as she smiles between spoonfuls.

For these breadwinners, and the other elderly female breadwinners in South Africa, nearly 67 percent of their income is made up of social grants.

“For many poor households, the state pension is the only formal and reliable source of income in their households. This automatically makes elderly women heads of households as they are then forced to stretch this grant to cater for the needs of their family members,” says Sidloyi. Findings from South Africa’s national statistical service show that women are more likely than men to distribute their pension among the rest of the household, a decision that translates into crucial socio-economic empowerment for future generations.

Women are more likely than men to distribute their pension among the rest of the household - South Africa’s national statistical service

“Kancini kakhulu. It is very small,” says Hadi, when asked about surviving on the grant money. “Our grant does not last longer than one day, we immediately buy our monthly food and pay our funeral policy, which is 240 rand ($18) a month. Then, our money is done,” she says, turning her palms towards the ceiling. This echoes the National Household Survey data: nearly 61 percent of elderly female breadwinners in South Africa feel they do not receive enough financial benefit.

The Older Person’s Grant, also known as the old-age pension, in South Africa is 1,510 rand (about $117) a month for those over the age of 60. Those over 75 receive an additional 20 rand ($1.5) a month. The child grant is a mere 360 rand ($27) per child.

Nophumzile Sikenya, 60, has applied for her pension but has yet to receive it. For now she survives off her daughter’s disability grant, which is 1,500 rand ($116) a month. “It makes me sick!” she says. “I am meant to pay for clothes, food, school fees, funeral policy...” she trails off, shaking her head in anger.

Familial violence

But while these grants offer a means of survival, they can also make the women targets of angry, unemployed young people.

We lose about one community member a week to violent crime - Nozukhile Hadi

Violent robberies often take place on the grant-receiving days as the women are walking home from the social services offices. Occasionally, those responsible are family members.

“This is a real problem,” continues Hadi. “The youth are creating this. It is worrying because as a parent you are not meant to be burying your children ...The devil has engaged with our children, they are breaking down families all over the Eastern Cape.”

Even though the women have become the breadwinners, the men occasionally act as security guards in the community, taking on different shifts to watch over the area at night.

The women believe that employment would ease the levels of crime.

In the distance, large bulldozers flatten the land to build new roads. “Sanral [The South African National Roads Agency Limited] comes in here to build our roads and they bring their workers with them. Why don’t they use our people? We even toyi-toyied [protested] about it. They don’t care, but we have taken our complaint to the municipality,” says 31-year-old Bomkazi Warosi, one of the younger women in the community who works closely with the other matriarchs.

Here, women from the area, tell of their challenges and their struggles to raise their community out of poverty.

The community says that even when police do catch the criminals they are released on bail a few months later on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

Innovating in the face of poverty

In spite of their hardships, the elderly women of Mthatha are an example of the innovative and collaborative survival mechanisms of elderly women across the country. They are fighting for the future of their grandchildren and, in turn, their community.

Outside the Sinovuyo centre are rows of cabbages, potatoes and spinach. As lunchtime approaches, the women slowly gravitate towards the kitchen where they prepare their meal of pap [maize], spinach and potatoes from the garden. This food will keep them going when their grant money dries up. In fact, according to the General Household Survey, 60 percent of elderly female headed households across the country that have a backyard garden do not go hungry.

The Sinovuyo centre, with its garden patch and meals, is a hub and place of solace for the community.

“Even though we don’t have formal support, we come together for help. For example, when the grant money is not enough, we share baking flour to make bread so we can feed our guests when they visit. Or we share our vegetables we grow in the garden, like onion, spinach, cabbage, carrots and potatoes,” says Hadi.

Gougatha, a widower, leaves the room and returns with a bag. She turns it upside down and colourful isiXhosa necklaces spill onto the table.

We bead these [necklaces] and sell them in the community to make more money - Nozukhile Hadi

She wraps one around her neck with a smile on her face. The women were donated sewing machines and bread baking tins by the government, but they are now gathering dust as the building is one of the few not supplied with electricity.

Xhosa women often wear small beaded panel necklaces that tell stories of their lives, relationships or their circumstances.

We have not had electricity since 2005 - Nozukhile Hadi

“We want to work. We don’t just want handouts. When we work together, something good can come out of that.”

It is a claim supported by Sidloyi’s findings. “It is important to note that no matter how bad their situation may be, the women are never victims of circumstance but rather active agents who constantly engage with and challenge their circumstances.”

This is true for 47-year-old Nosakhele Mashipa, who is not old enough to apply for the pension grant, but raises 10 children (both her children, her grandchildren and her sister’s children) on her husband’s pension grant, two foster grants and one child support grant. The rest of her grants are obstructed by administrative hurdles she is fighting over at SASSA [South African Social Security Agency]. This means she is raising ten children on R3,650 ($280) per month.

The elderly women of Mthatha actively seek coping mechanisms that sustain their children, husbands and grandchildren. They do this not only to survive, but to invest in their grandchildren, for whom they envision a future without such suffering.

Future generations

Understanding the value and role of elderly women in communities is key to drafting policies that support them and their families, says Sidloyi. Sewing machines are merely ornaments without electricity to power them. Baking tins are simply containers without ovens in which to bake bread. Social grants are inadequate when they are not efficiently administered. “Services and policies need to speak to their lived realities. Poor households rely mostly on the extended family structure and this is a reality that needs to be taken into account,” she reiterates.

The Eastern Cape is renowned for its shortage of resourced schools, teachers and infrastructure for children.

Until then, the elderly women of Mthatha can do little more than they already are. Standing in front of the rows of cabbages, Hadi closes her eyes, tilting her head towards the tempestuous sky above.“ What makes me have hope is that our children are surviving...” she begins, before launching into a prayer, quietly at first, but growing louder until it is almost a shout and tears trickle from the corners of her eyes.

“Lord God, be our shepherd. Shepherd us in the challenges that we are experiencing ... you said you are the father of orphans, you are able to wipe all tears, and you saw even us in our plight. You took even the likes of Lazarus, picking up crumbs under the table, and you put them on top of the table. Here are your children now. Remove the hurt we are experiencing. At the end of the year, all must change for the better.”