It’s 7am. The queue outside the Family Court at 15 Market Street, Johannesburg, snakes like a ragged washing line. All sorts of people, from all walks of life, stand waiting to pass through the security system and gain admission to this building on a blustery Thursday morning.As the throng moves through the electronic detector system, a large contingent of women of all colours and races make their way up to the second floor and move herd-like into the Maintenance room. They take their places and wait for a number, to get a form, to get attention. The waiting is endless.”I’ve been coming for a week now every day and I’ve still had no meaningful help,” says Xoliswa, 26, from Soweto.”Ja
,” nods Bernadette, 38, from Langlaagte. “It’s a blerrie
nightmare here. Day in day out, week after week, just to get a scrap of cash to feed the kid my husband made with me.”A landmark ruling last year extended single parents’ powers to recover maintenance money they’re owed. But turning this law into action won’t be easy, says Johannesburg advocate Hein Verhoef from the Maintenance Clinic.”You wouldn’t believe the queues and queues of people waiting in line, struggling to get maintenance,” he says. “The courts are severely under-resourced, so people are forced to wait a very long time to get any results. The wheels of the legal system are turning far too slowly.”It’s often financial problems that force people to sit in queues day in and day out. They can’t afford private lawyers, so they’re forced to take off days from work and lose income. Plus they have to pay extra transport on taxis. It’s a very difficult situation.”
Paul Mthimunye, the deputy director of Family Law at the Department of Justice, acknowledges the pressure on resources at Jozi’s Maintenance Court. “There are 83 642 maintenance cases being handled at the Market Street branch – and we fully acknowledge that this court is totally over-burdened, as it serves Soweto and the greater Johannesburg area,” he says, but adds that his department is addressing the problem.
“We’ve appointed extra maintenance clerks and officials to meet the public’s demand and address the understaffing problems. We now have an internship programme focusing on improving maintenance issues, and the maintenance payment system has been upgraded to ensure computerised efficiency so that payments are made more timeously. When money is deposited in a person’s account, they’re informed by an SMS.
“We’re trying to decentralise the whole system to create services in the townships and ease the Market Street overload. People also struggle with transport getting there, so having local courts will make it more convenient for everybody.
“We’ve also recently created Project Isondlo [Zulu for "support/maintenance"], which will address the backlog of maintenance defaulters, and in Market Street we now have investigators tracking down payment defaulters.”
More than 200 maintenance investigators were appointed in maintenance courts two years ago to help trace maintenance-dodging dads, and investigate their financial status and savings, including those tucked away in secret accounts. Then last year’s landmark judgment gave maintenance investigators even more clout.
Single mother Liz, the plaintiff, had been owed money by her affluent husband since 1994 for her son, who’s now aged 17. After hearing the case, the judge ruled that all maintenance courts have the power to order the defaulter to pay, even by intercepting payments from an insurance policy, retirement annuity or pension fund. Maintenance investigators now have the power to subpoena any institution to reveal a defaulter’s status.
It all sounds very encouraging for single mothers battling to support themselves and their children, but one look at the endless queues of stressed applicants waiting in the Maintenance Court makes you question just how effective the new ruling really is.
Changing the system may be beyond the powers of ordinary single mothers – but you can change the way you operate inside that system. By understanding how a maintenance application works, and equipping yourself with all the necessary documents and information, you can stop being a victim of the maintenance machine and become the manager of your own role in it.
Single mother Gadija Hendriks: “I’ve been coming to this court since 1997. My daughter’s deaf and I’m really struggling to send her to the special school and pay all her expenses. The school fees alone are R10 000 per year.
“I met her father when I was still at school. We fell in love and dated for quite a while. Then I fell pregnant when I was 18, and he said I should have an abortion. I didn’t want to, so he ran away.
“The day our daughter was born, my mother dragged him to see her, but the next thing he was gone.
“For the first five years of her life, he didn’t pay a cent towards her upkeep. Finally I came to court and he was ordered to pay R500 a month. Sometimes he’d pay R100 or R150 – never the right amount. So I became a real regular here at the court.
“We’re Muslims and last year, during the festival of Eid, he came over and gave his daughter a lousy R50. I think in 13 years he’s paid less than R5 000. I have a court order now that he has to pay the money into my account, but he’s always full of excuses. He drives a 4×4 and he definitely has money.
“We both knew what we were doing when we were having sex, but he’s never taken responsibility. My daughter’s a darling child, but I really need help with her.”
Estranged father Donald Maleka: “I have a five-year-old daughter who lives with her mother in Johannesburg. I’m currently employed as a construction worker and earn R3 000 per month.
“Last year, my ex-girlfriend successfully applied for a garnishing order of R700 against me for maintenance. I’m currently attempting to apply for a reduction of the child support money. I have many expenses to pay with the little money I earn and I’m fast incurring debt because I can’t make ends meet. I usually end up borrowing money from my friends so I can keep going each month. “My biggest frustration is that I know my ex-girlfriend uses the maintenance money on herself, and not on my daughter. It makes me very angry just to think of it. She doesn’t even need that much money for our child – she just wants to buy clothes for herself. She claimed in court that she was unemployed, but I know she’s involved in a few projects that earn her a good income.
“I made the suggestion that I myself buy everything my daughter needs, but my ex-girlfriend refused and said she just wants the money.
“I really don’t mind paying maintenance for my child. I want her to have a happy life and know I’m her father. If my application to reduce the maintenance money doesn’t succeed, my second option is to apply for custody of my daughter.”