WOMEN Development Businesses (WDB) celebrated its 25th anniversary last week with a dialogue titled Making Poverty History.
It was attended by women from across SA’s socioeconomic spectrum, facilitating sobering discussion on poverty and the ways in which sustainable livelihoods can be created for the poor.
WDB has since 1991 been working to eradicate poverty in rural communities. The brainchild of former first lady Zanele Mbeki, it provides microfinance to impoverished rural women and runs social support programmes through the WDB Trust.
"When I returned from exile in the early 1990s, I wanted to work in a sector that supported rural women, because they are the face of poverty, and we need to improve their material and social conditions," Mbeki says.
More than half of South Africans live below the poverty line and 10% live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1.25 a day.
Statistics SA’s recent 2016 Community Survey found that almost 20% — or nearly one in five — households ran out of money to buy food in the past 12 months while 13.3% (2.2-million households) reported skipping a meal in the past year.
Speaking at the WDB dialogue, Mbeki said women had the right to raise a capable and healthy generation, create thriving livelihoods where they live, and to plan their futures. "It’s amazing to me that in 2016, WDB still has clients who are in the same dire economic position as the clients we had in 1991," she said.
Mbeki said that although monthly grants for the poor are a welcome safety net, these grants are for consumption rather than development and, therefore, do not lift people out of poverty. What is needed, she believes, are productive loans for entrepreneurs and support programmes that help the poor to help themselves out of poverty.
The WDB Trust’s Siyakhula Microfinance Institution, based on the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh’s approach to microcredit, enables impoverished female entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses through access to step-up loans. With this assistance they can uplift their families and communities.
Through its Zenzele Development Programme, the trust supports community self-organisation and links the poorest households to development resources to help them out of poverty. To date, more than 180,000 rural women and their families have benefited from WDB Trust loans of more than R400m, and thousands more women were trained by the trust in literacy and basic computer skills.
WDB Investment Holdings, which was started in 1997 with seed capital of R2m, and with the sole purpose of funding the WDB Trust’s programmes, today has a net asset value of R3.8bn, and has repatriated more than R200m to the trust.
Addressing the audience at the dialogue, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said women were the most affected by poverty and also had the most impact when it came to eradicating it.
Fatima Shabodien, ActionAid SA’s country director, said while South African women had been fighting for a place at the economic table for the past 22 years, and some had made it to CEO positions and were on boards of JSE-listed companies, the economic framework needed to be questioned.
"The current economic model is fundamentally premised on the exploitation of people and the environment. For the first time in history, there is global agreement that this macroeconomic framework does not work for the majority of people globally, rather serving the interests of a few, based on race, class and location," Shabodien said.
She added that questions had to be asked about the kind of economy SA needed to build to create long-lasting opportunities for women, and how societal values could be shifted to a point where the notion of women’s equality was not an anomaly but the norm.
Mamphela Ramphele called on South Africans to re-imagine and rebuild SA into the country they dreamt of when developing the Constitution.
"Today that dream is blurred. SA has the resources for all of us to live comfortably. What we need as we celebrate WDB’s 25 years of excellence in development, is to commit ourselves to building SA, we re-imagine and rid ourselves of poverty and socioeconomic injustices, demanding and asserting our rights and exercising our responsibilities," she said.
Mbeki said she would like to see WDB creating a savings bank for women, so that they could borrow money at reduced interest rates.