Elderly feel the loss of extended family

Erratic pension payments, a rising cost of living and changing social circumstances are leaving Swaziland’s elderly with no choice but to fend for themselves and adjust to living alone. This is unprecedented in a country where an extended family system traditionally provided a social safety-net and companionship.

"I thank my God that I am still alive at 72, but I never thought I could be so lonely. In the old days there was never 'alone’, but many elderly are living by themselves today, like me. What happened?" asked Amos Ngwenya, a farmer in the central Manzini region.

"You were in a Swazi family and so you were taken care of, from cradle to grave. It was  a simple life and government didn't have to assist anyone. Now, if I don't get my old age pension I might go hungry if I do not use my imagination," Lucy Simelane, 65, told IRIN.

Swaziland’s desperate financial situation caused suspension of the US$21 pension pay-out in the second quarter of 2011, in favour of a grant to cover the school fees of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC). About 5 percent of Swaziland's approximately one million people are 60 years old or older and eligible for a government pension. Roughly two-thirds of Swazis live below the poverty line.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, has turned to South Africa in the hope of securing a $1.47 billion loan to save the country from collapse after being rebuffed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, according to media reports. The country does not have sufficient funds to pay its public servants in June.

Simelane, the youngest of her late husband's three wives, cares for her ailing HIV-positive 25-year-old son, who has tuberculosis. "Life is hard taking care of [my son] by myself, and I worry about getting enough for us to eat," she said. 

Coping strategies

Most days she scours the nearby hillsides with neighbours, searching for seeds, berries and wild spinach to supplement the staple food, maize-meal - coping strategies that in the past were adopted only in times of drought or economic distress.

''The older of our people are adopting 'coping mechanisms' like never before. It's not just the economic downturn that makes this necessary, it is because Swazi elderly are alone now as never before''

"The older of our people are adopting 'coping mechanisms' like never before. It's not just the economic downturn that makes this necessary, it is because Swazi elderly are alone now as never before," Mkhuluza Zwane, the head of Umtfunti Wemaswazi, an advocacy group for the elderly, told IRIN.

But such coping methods are temporary solutions, Zwane said, as they rely on seasons. Simelane, like others in the neighbourhood, is using water from a communal borehole to grow vegetables.

"Swazis growing vegetables is a new thing. We have water to do this now. I can even sell extra vegetables and make some money. Winter is good for growing because we never get frost, and with the sunshine the cabbage still grows. But the soil is not good and the cabbage is not big," she said.

Amos Ngwenya, an octogenarian and a widower, is fit enough to cultivate his fields, but allows his neighbours to till the land in exchange for some sacks of maize at the end of the season.

Once employed by government as a local agriculture advisor, he has a small pension that meets most of his needs and he resides rent-free on communal Swazi Nation Land, where 70 percent of Swazis live under the jurisdiction of traditional chiefs.

"I feel sorry for old people who only have that pension to live on because it is so little, but even a little bit helps. You must remember I grew up when there were no pensions for anyone, and somehow we coped. We must remember those old days and borrow those lessons to survive as old people today," he said.

The multi-generational family farm that was a fixture when he was born - when few Swazis travelled more than 80km or so from their birthplace - has been replaced by the effects of urbanisation, with children and relatives scattered over long distances.

Although Swaziland has the world’s highest HIV prevalence rates - 26.1 percent of people aged 15-49 are living with the virus, which has reduced average life expectancy to 39 years - more than 70 percent of the population are not infected and will probably live into their seventies.


"It's ironic that in Swaziland of all places - because we are a very gregarious people and a family-oriented society - you find more older people living in isolation. This is not only dispiriting for them but is unhealthy and dangerous. The elderly are prey to criminals and they face discrimination," said Angelina Dube, a social worker in the Manzini area.

Simelane laments that she is not part of her grandchildren's lives. "They live far away. Some of my grandchildren live in town, where my daughter works, and a stranger looks after them during the day," she said.

"The absence of the responsibility of taking care of grandchildren is a terrible loss for many elderly women. They have no substitute activity, and their sense of self-worth is threatened by the absence of what Swazi grannies always used to do,” Dube said.

“It is disturbing how many young people make fun of the elderly nowadays. It didn't used to be that way. Swazi society was based on respect of the elders, and we worshiped our ancestors.”