Father, please give me my daily bread – child maintenance
According to the Institute of Race Relations 9 million children in South Africa grow up with absent fathers. One may assume that the majority of these fathers don’t pay any child maintenance and then an alarming number of fathers in South Africa default on their child maintenance payments. It is a novel idea when people and celebrities alike engage in projects such as “Save the Rhino” but don’t we miss the point? Has the time not come to throw our weight behind projects to save the many thousands of children in South Africa who must suffer the consequences of an absent father who don’t pay child maintenance? With the increase in divorce and the number of children born outside marriage, more and more women find themselves bearing the sole responsibility of caring for their children.
It is generally accepted that children with fathers who default on their maintenance payments grow up with a strong sense of resentment and rejection. When a parent fails to pay maintenance for their child, the child ends up feeling depressed, disadvantaged and unloved. The non-payment of maintenance, results in degeneration of the family unit and the children are sometimes driven to a life of crime.
In 2005 the government launched Operation Isondlo a maintenance defaulter programme with its aims to decrease the backlog of maintenance cases. This was indeed a noble initiative for which government must be applauded but in reality the effectiveness of the programme is doubtful having regard to the many women complaining about the ineffectiveness and inability to bring defaulters to book.
In 2011 the Western Cape Department of Justice and Constitutional Development released a list of 7 084 fathers across the Western Cape who were in arrears with their maintenance payments. The fathers collectively owed close to R16 million to their children in maintenance, with one father owing more than R200 000. Some women don’t even bother to approach the maintenance court because they feel that it is a pointless exercise. But the reality is that it is not only fathers who default in paying their child maintenance and the second biggest maintenance defaulter captured last year in Cape Town was a woman who owed her child R112 000. It was also found that there are mothers who did not collect their child maintenance and in 2011 about R 1 million in maintenance had been allocated for mothers who simply failed to collect it.
Much sterner measures need to be put into place to compel fathers to pay maintenance. In reality many of these father’s also shift the responsibility to the mother’s new husband or partner which is an extra burden in the harsh economic climate that we live in.
Some of the problems in our maintenance system include inadequately trained court staff and insufficient facilities and resources. The problems in our maintenance system cannot be resolved through the process of legislation alone, but by also creating a culture of maintenance payment amongst all those that are legally liable to maintain those in need of maintenance. If there is no respect for the law, the maintenance system will fail. A well functioning and effective maintenance system is critical not only for the children in South Africa.
We need to find measures to expedite maintenance application procedures, application processing, payments and punitive measures for defaulting parents. The possibility of Saturday courts for maintenance and other matters related to family law need to be investigated and the possibility to introducing mediation services in maintenance matters. In order to address the problem the media need to be engaged in creating awareness of the growing problems regarding child maintenance.
Legally, a duty of support exists between people who have a familial bond. A person who owes another person a duty of support may have to pay maintenance for that person, if the person has the means to provide maintenance and if the receiving person is in need of maintenance. The law requires a child to be supported or maintained by both his/her parents, whether married, living together, separated or divorced or by both his/her grandparents, in certain cases. South African law imposes a duty on both maternal and paternal grandparents to contribute towards maintenance if the child’s parents are unable to do so in part or in full. There is a duty of support between siblings, both full and half brothers and sisters where the parents and grandparents are unable to provide support, but the support does not extend to include tertiary education of a major sibling. Effectively this means that a mother in need of maintenance of her child may summons the paternal grandparents to the maintenance court if the father is unable to pay.
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