Social development

A passionate champion for social development


When President Cyril Ramaphosa needed someone to step in and sort out the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) crisis that was consuming his government, he turned to someone he trusted. A veteran of the government with a proven track record, and moulded by her mentor, Mama Albertina Sisulu, Minister Susan Shabangu was the person he called to steer the Department of Social Development back to still waters.

There are few people who have as long a history in both the government and the African National Congress (ANC) as Shabangu. One of the longest-serving members of parliament and deployed in the first post-Apartheid assembly back in 1994, she has a long and rich history of focusing primarily on women’s issues and has fulfilled several portfolios as a Cabinet Minister.

Born in 1956 and, in her own words, “a child of the 1976 struggle”, Shabangu was drawn into politics by circumstance more than by choice. Growing under the wing of Sisulu, a giant in the liberation movement, she moved quickly to become a strong voice for women’s and labour rights, organising the Amalgamated Black Worker’s Project in 1984, and went on to head the women’s desk at Cosatu. An advisor at the September Commission, assigned to look at the future of unions in the mid-1990s, she transitioned into a Member of Parliament for the ANC and has been active in parliamentary committees ever since.

Shabangu served in various portfolios, including the Deputy Minister of Minerals and Energy in 1996 and the Deputy Minister of Safety and Security from 2007, and she headed the government’s mining portfolio before becoming the Minister in the Presidency for Women.

But in the recent Cabinet reshuffle, she was made the Minister of Social Development, as the Sassa court judgement threatened to engulf one of the country’s most important government departments.

A surprise call to help

Shabangu was relaxing at home when she received the call telling her to wait for President Cyril Ramaphosa to call her, a call which facilitated her re-deployment and a jump into helping stabilise the Sassa situation.

“I must say, I was at home and not even aware that appointments were being made until I was called by the Director-General in the Presidency, Dr Cassius Lubisi, who asked me my whereabouts. I told him I am at home,” she explains.

“He asked if I can come to Pretoria, and my driver wasn’t here. He told me the President wants to talk to me, and he needs to chat urgently. I waited for the President to call, and when you are expecting a call from the President, you don’t sleep because you don’t know what is going to happen.

“After two hours, he called and told me he decided to redeploy me and was going to make me the Minister of Social Development. I was surprised and shocked simultaneously. When that happens, you start trying to recall what social development is all about. What is expected of you?

“Additionally, because you are shocked, you are unable to ask, ‘What do you expect me to do?’ Because it is a deployment, you tell the President it is fine. But a lot of things go through your mind and you’re trying to understand what the expectation of the President is. For the first time since you have been a member of the Cabinet, you start asking yourself, ‘What is expected of me?’” Shabangu recalls.

Not one to sit still, she immediately got to work by stabilising a situation that had played itself out all too often in the courts and media.

“The first thing, as we all know, was the challenge of Sassa—it was in all the papers. You start asking yourself, ‘How much do I know about social development and its challenges, including Sassa?’—it was a huge challenge. I slept and woke up the following day with a new responsibility.

You start saying, ‘Let me try to read in order to understand the space much better.’ You receive calls of congratulations, but also calls from people saying you are in trouble and that you’ve been thrown under the bus.

“But, unfortunately, it had happened and there wasn’t much I could do. The attitude that I always adopt is simple, I have been appointed and I have to deliver. On that basis, I started focusing on what I had to do. I focused on the mandate and understanding what the challenges and problems were.

“‘What can I do to have an impact on this portfolio?’. That was my first reaction and, to my surprise, I thought I knew a lot about social development, but realised I didn’t know much. I had a responsibility to know much more and find out exactly what social development is all about.

Sassa: ‘a critical issue’

“As I indicated, the critical issue was Sassa. My first point of call was to talk to the acting CEO of Sassa to try to understand what Sassa’s challenges were.

“Also, unfortunately, I was appointed on 26 February and we were going to court on 16 March, and that was my biggest fear and concern. I went through the judgements and tried to figure out what the situation was.

“I had to meet the lawyers, I only met them at the courts because I took it upon myself to try to understand this case much better. I needed to understand the Constitutional Court judgement as well. When I listened to the arguments and the frustration of the judges about Sassa and social development, it really touched me.

“How could we push our highest court in the land to a point whereby they felt so helpless because we were not able to face the challenges of Sassa or implement the previous court decisions? I told myself that we were not supposed to be in court. I was going to make sure we were going to implement and abide by the court’s decision.

“And I’m happy to say that, today, we are complying with the court’s decision and we are also delivering on our department’s mandate. I’m satisfied that we have been able to bring stability when it comes to Sassa,” she enthuses.

Shabangu has implemented her own leadership style when it comes to organising strategic planning sessions, meeting senior officials and understanding what the challenges of the department are.

“One of the issues is to ensure the department becomes efficient. This is being addressed by meeting senior management on a regular basis and engaging them on their mandate and the issues they have to deal with. It is also to ensure there is stability—we needed to make sure there is strategic planning.

“Part of my approach to the whole situation is to ensure we bring the provinces on board. Our mandate, in terms of the constitution, means we have concurrent functions and it is important to pull the provinces together to align and mainstream out delivery.

“To me, it is important to ensure we pull everyone together and the outcome of our strategic plan makes me feel comfortable. You find the provinces and the national government engaging, debating and deciding how they are going to implement the programmes they are coming up with. For example, one of the key issues is what the priorities are.

“What is it they feel they need to deliver? I’m happy to say we have identified early childhood development (ECD) as a priority because when you are talking about ECD, you are talking about the pipeline of education in our system, the importance of making sure children from 0-5 are ready to go to school.

Gender-based violence

“We deliberated on the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) and to what extent we can respond adequately, especially now when women are victims of violence in our society. While there is the broader violence, there is the specific violence against women—abuse, rape and femicide.

These are all a challenge in South Africa. As a department, we really have to make sure we are able to address these matters.

“Not long ago, there was a Presidential Summit on GBV in our country. We cannot fail our people, we have to make sure that we are able to respond and put preventative mechanisms in place to reduce violence in our society.

“When we talk about violence, we are not just talking about gender violence but all violence in our country—we need to put mechanisms in place, which will make our country peaceful,” Shabangu says.

Gender-based violence remains a massive part of the department’s mandate, as is looking after the vulnerable in society.

“Our core mandate as a department is to make sure we take care of our vulnerable—all the marginalised groups—and all the fragile people in our country. That is our core mandate,” Shabangu explains.

“It is also to ensure that the wellbeing and welfare of our people are being taken care of and that we move towards a developmental approach whereby we don’t only rely on the question of welfare but we also make sure people are able to enjoy a sustainable livelihood,” she says.

Shabangu recently reaffirmed the government’s commitment to fighting gender-based violence and attended the Presidential Summit on GBV to illustrate the seriousness of the matter to her department.

“Dealing with GBV is very critical in our country. If you look at femicide and the number of rapes, it is really disturbing. The number of LGBTIQ communities that have been victimised calls upon us to prioritise that particular aspect of creating a safer society for women, for all societies—women, children and men.

“If we are unable to address these issues, we cannot be deemed a caring. It is critically important that the GBV summit comes out with a declaration, which we have to follow.

“What makes me comfortable is the steering committee, which was set up before the summit, has been allowed to continue and has been given the mandate to develop a strategic national plan within six months and we, as a department, will continue to support that. This was a presidential decision and we are working with the presidency and civil society to realise and reduce GBV in our society.

“One of the most critical issues when dealing with this issue are our shelters. Meeting as the various stakeholders will enable us to ascertain whether we are effective or not and if we are not effective in terms of the mechanisms that we have, what is it that we need to do and how do we make sure all these programmes are effective?

“It also raises the question of funding—are we going to be able to resource the programmes? As the government, we are committed to resourcing them. The President has given an undertaking and these programmes will be properly resourced

“I am confident that with the summit’s mandate, we will be able to work with everybody, even though we are not saying we will eliminate this violence overnight. It is a huge challenge—very complex—but by working together, we make sure our path is not treated as an event. Rather, it becomes a journey, which we can all walk together. Not just women, not just LGBTIQ communities, but also men.

“If men were not committing violence against women or the LGBTIQ community, we would not be having this conversation. Thus, they become a critical part of the machinery to fight and overcome gender violence in our society,” Shabangu explains.

While there was a six-month deadline to fast track all outstanding laws and bills relating to GBV and femicide, Shabangu believes this is just a start.

“Deadlines are your process. Six months is not about doing everything. It is about putting mechanisms in place and ensuring each mechanism addresses the aspect in the laws, the gaps in the laws, the shelters, the counselling.

“ All those aspects which impact on GBV, we have to look at. If we are going to say that in six months we are going to be done, we will be deceiving the world. We want to put mechanisms in place.

“You can’t plan for progress and, at the same time, have ifs, and then the failures. No, it is very wrong. There is a mandate and it is clear. We can’t start talking about failing because if we do, we fail before we even start.

We need to think about the positives, the success, the pain felt by the women on the ground, which is what must drive us. That is what will ensure success.

“If we have to start looking at failures, then we are a non-starter and that is unacceptable. That is why, for me, we cannot afford to fail our communities and our women.

The department recently opened a new disability-friendly computer centre for the visually impaired in Port Elizabeth and the Eastern Cape and is committed to fulfilling its mandate to the disabled in the country.

“It is a critical component of our society because people with disabilities and those who are blind and deaf are part of our society. We need to make sure we accommodate them and mainstream them so that they can be employed and to contribute to our economy. They must also be able to be a part of society.

“How do we do that? With mechanisms like the labs, which will enable them to have access to equipment and the relevant facilities and which provides an environment that they feel normal in, where they don’t have to ask for help to read a paper or say they can’t hear.

“As a department, we have managed to adopt a policy of ensuring those who are deaf have sign-language facilities. If you look where we are as the government now, we have been able to ensure a sign-language expert is present at every activity, allowing everyone to be part of the debate without people being left out. Inclusive participation is critical for our country to be better,” she explains.

A Politician by accident

These are issues that are dear to her heart, and she smiles when she says she became a Politician by accident. Her passion in the liberation struggle translated into a calling, and the calling translated into government service, all of which were unexpected at the time.

“I never thought I would be a Politician, but I belonged to the students of 1976, and what set me on this course was the frustration of having to learn everything in Afrikaans—I was a young girl who was doing maths and science, and struggling with Afrikaans as a language.

“The realisation that we would do everything in Afrikaans and this would be the end of our road when it came to education mobilised the fight against Afrikaans. But there was also the broader scope and vision to realise it was not just Afrikaans, but the whole system of Apartheid that put us where we were. That was the beginning of my career.

“I was growing up in various organisations and student movements, I was involved in the creation of women’s organisations, I contributed towards the labour movement and participated in the anti-Republic campaign when the republic was celebrating its 20th anniversary in 1980, and I fought that as part of the struggle.

“Additionally, I served in the Release Mandela campaign. All of this was set me on my career path. We were determined not to fail, but to succeed in creating this non-racial, non-sexist South Africa.

“To me, what was very striking was the education when it came to the ANC. The education we had through the ANC, I don’t think it is something we would have received academically—understanding the humanity is what made me who I am.

“In 1992, after the unbanning of the organisation, I thought the time had come for me to go home, become a professional and take care of my family. However, I had a calling that said: ‘If you aren’t going to parliament, then who will go to parliament? You are one of the people who has been assigned to go to parliament.’ That’s why I am here today.

“I am not sure that I would have been happy if I had become a housewife because I have always been a person who cares and who wants to see others in a better space. That has been what has driven me to get to where I am.

“And being appointed by the late Tata Mandela as a Deputy Minister was an incredible honour. He appointed little me as a Deputy Minister for Pik Botha, with big hands. I was very intimidated and scared but because I was determined, I went in and said I was going to do it. And I did it because it was not impossible. It takes determination and willingness to get to these positions.

Being a woman in politics isn’t an easy space but it a lot easier than it was before. Shabangu believes that woman are more assertive and are playing a more active role in politics than ever before, and this should be applauded, not only in South Africa but on the African continent as well.

“It has transformed. It might not be enough but a lot of transformation has taken place. I’m asking myself where I am today, and where I started as a young girl, would I be here if our political landscape had not changed?

“Also, if women themselves did not participate in the struggle, I don’t think we would be here today. We are here by virtue of us being part of the struggle, fighting Apartheid side by side with the men in South Africa and making sure the non-racial, non-sexist fight was fought together. We are not yet there but we are determined to make sure the struggles of women will not be forgotten. We continue to fight.

“I also want to say, we are not just talking about women as an add-on, we are talking about the quality and value which women undoubtedly add, and the right for them to compete equally with anyone. Nobody can claim to be doing a favour for women today, they fought for themselves. And if you look at the private sector, they are still fighting and struggling to ensure they are still part of the mainstream of our economy.

“They also participate in the various levels of our economy, including in business. That shows women’s determination to succeed.

“Women in Africa are making big strides and changes. If you look at Rwanda and Namibia, if you look at South Africa, we are ranking high in the world. The reason is because women in Africa, we no longer see ourselves as women who belong in the kitchen. We see ourselves as women who belong in the world, women who belong in any activity. We are producing lawyers, judges and presidents in Africa. We are leading, we aren’t there yet and there is still a lot of work we need to do, but I am positive we are on the right track,” she enthuses.

A message to aspiring women leaders

Shabangu also has a message for the young women leaders of tomorrow—be assertive and get educated,

“The first thing I would say to young women is that times are different. The first thing that I would like to pass on is that they must go to school and be educated. Education, education, education.

“If they have to stand within society, they have to go to school and be educated. Part of that is that they have to make sure they continue to be assertive. Self-assertiveness, confidence and believing in themselves will make sure they become leaders in their own space.

“They must not be apologetic about that. If one becomes apologetic, you lose your confidence. You don’t become assertive if you expect others to always say yes. They must always believe it is possible, no matter how tough and difficult an environment is. Willingness, self-confidence and humility will ensure they achieve their goals. And they can be future leaders.

“I want to say to all the young girls out there, they must not feel deterred. There are many challenges for them as women to overcome but it is for them to believe in themselves.”

And her definition of a good leader is simple, as is her leadership style.

“A good and effective leader is someone who listens, who believes in others and has humility. Key to all of this is someone who is also respectful,” Shabangu adds.

“I always believe in carrying people along with me. I believe you can’t succeed alone. It might be difficult but you have to carry people all the time.

“Your success can be measured when you see others advancing as per your contribution in their space. On the basis of that, you are able to say I was successful. My personal success is measured on what you leave and share with others,” she says.

While Albertina Sisulu features heavily on the list of those who inspired her, she gives credit to many others.

“There are so many but one of the greatest leaders who had a big impact on me was Mama Albertina Sisulu. For me, she was not just a leader, she became like a mother, she became like a sister. She saw us as equals without losing respect. She had a great influence in my life and in shaping it.

“There are many—Mama Rita Ndzanga shaped my life. There are so many of them. Even the current President shaped my life in the Trade Union Movement. I looked upon him as one of the greatest leaders then. He was firm but focused and he knew what he was doing. I can’t forget one of my leaders, Mama Lydia Nkompe, who is a member of parliament in Limpopo. She contributed immensely in my life when I was in the Trade Union Movement. I respect these people,” Shabangu says.

Her vision for her department is to fulfil its mandate and for those who are vulnerable to benefit as they should.

“The vision of social development is to create a South Africa that is well-developed and to bring stability to our country. My vision will be to ensure South Africa becomes stable and peaceful. It will also be to make sure the women, the vulnerable, the children and those with disabilities, become part of our mainstream society.

“We have to mainstream disability and give people their own tools to allow them to become part of society as a whole. We have people in wheelchairs who can move from point A to point B without any assistance. Today, we have people who are blind and who can navigate their spaces without assistance. There are so many people with disabilities who are also professionals. As a country, we are creating a space where the future cannot be exclusive, but where the future can include everybody in our society.

“Whilst I am new in this space, the greatest achievement has been to change the lives of people with disabilities and the vulnerable. We are also happy that social development has contributed immensely to creating safety for women in white-door shelters.

If you look at the Children’s Act, the protection of children becomes a priority in our country. If you are unable to protect your children as a society, who are you going to protect? If one has to look at the issue of child trafficking and foster care, social development has done very well in these areas in terms of putting mechanisms in place to ensure we can be a society that cares for its people,” she explains.

Shabangu says maintaining the passion to help others is easy, and this will be her driving force when it comes to making sure the department plays a meaningful role in others’ lives.

“Maintaining my passion is easy. I look at the challenges I confront on a daily basis. Being able to wake up on different days and being able to look at how I am going to solve a problem is what motivates me. I always believe that nothing is impossible. This is what shapes my life,” she concludes. 

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