When he leaves, but the abuse continues

Women's struggle with child maintenance payments

It's not yet 11 o clock at the Johannesburg Family court but the register book for those who are there on issues of child maintenance already has over 100 signatures.

Most of the signatures belong to women.

The women line the corridors outside the maintenance office and the courts, waiting for a turn at justice.

Nontokozo Jika, who does not want her real name to be used, is one of those women. Her case is being heard in court room nine. A maintenance case only gets to a court room if the parties involved have failed to reach an agreement with the maintenance officer.

Every now and then she steps out of the court room with her lawyer. They have a whispered discussion and go back in. Less than two hours after it began, her case is adjourned. She has won...

Nontokozo is a 43-year-old receptionist from Soweto, South of Johannesburg. She has been in child maintenance battles with her former partner of over 15 years since 2011. The first battle was to force him to pay more maintenance for one of their two daughters. He was paying R200, the courts forced him to increase it to R1000. The second battle, the one she just "won", was to force him to back pay a year's medical aid costs for the same child and continue with future payments.

Nontokozo has two daughters, 24 and 11, with her former partner. He does not make any contribution towards the 24-year-old because she is an adult.She is reluctant to talk about the situation with the father of her children. She says talking about it almost always reduces her to tears and raises her blood pressure.She says they were never married, but their families knew each other and they lived together for over 10 years. Now her partner does not even acknowledge her presence. He refuses to take responsibility for their children."He doesn't talk to me. I don’t know why but he doesn’t talk to me. He passes me like he does not even know me," she says, looking in the direction of her former partner who just came out from the court room they were in.More than the inconvenience of having to take leave from work or having to spend her money to travel to the court, Nontokozo says the real cost of the maintenance battle is the toll it’s taken on her emotional and physical well-being. "Every time I think about coming here I get sick. It’s one of the worst things I find myself having to do," she says taking deep breaths between words. Her attempts to not cry fail completely when she mentions that her eldest daughter's child of six is now going to pre-school and her former partner has never even seen the her... "He says that has nothing to do with him."

Elzaan Rabie, a director at Vaneeden Attorneys, says that even though maintenance cases are common, many of them do not end up before a magistrate. Many times the parties involved are able to come to an agreement with the maintenance officers.

But even after a magistrate has given a ruling, some fathers continue to not pay or pay sporadically.

Some hope that recent amendments made to the Maintenance Bill will help defaulters to think twice before ignoring court orders. The new amendments state that if a person refuses to pay their child maintenance fees, the maintenance officer can "furnish that person's particulars to any business which has its object the granting of credit or involved in the credit rating of persons".

This amendment was supported by all parties in parliament, except the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The EFF says that the amendment will end up putting the defaulter, who is normally the father, and the child, at a disadvantage. Rabie however says that if applied in the right way, the amendment could help mothers like Nontokozo whose former partners often ignore court orders. Rabie says a father or parent who continues to not pay child maintenance, despite court orders forcing him, could be arrested, and face emolument or garnishee orders. The infographic below explains the three in detail.

The children bear the brunt of maintenance non-payments

A floor down from Nontokozo. Pearl Mokoena, who also does not want to be named for fear of making her former partner angry, sits outside the maintenance office telling the women around her about the famous and rich father of her children who just could not be bothered. Pearl is trying to get the father of her two children, 9 and 6, to increase the money he pays for maintenance from R2 500 per child, to R3 500. When her name is called, she goes into the office. She comes out only a few minutes later with a smile on her face. Her former partner is absent but he has agreed. He will give her the extra R1 000 for each child.

She sits down again on the benches outside the office. Her smile is not only because he agreed to pay the extra money but also because he did not come. Pearl is terrified of her former lover, who is 18 years her senior.

He is a well-known presenter on national television.

Pearl (39) says she was afraid of him throughout their eight year relationship, and continues to be afraid of him after it ended almost five years ago.

"He always had this thing that he is wise and better than me. His opinions are what mattered. Mine could be dismissed," says Pearl.

Theirs was a relationship where he made all the rules and she obeyed them out of fear. After their first child was born he only contributed financially towards their upbringing when he felt like it... "and even then he just bought a few clothes here and then. Then he would make it seem like he was doing me a favour," says Pearl. She says she was too afraid to bring up the issue of child maintenance with him.

It was only after her businesses started failing and she was cash strapped that she went to the family court. She says they were still together then, and after he received the notice from the maintenance officer, he stopped coming to her house and cut off all contact with her.

"We never even officially broke up, he just stopped calling and he stopped coming over."

Unlike Nontokozo, Pearl's former partner agreed to the amount she requested while the case was still with the maintenance officer so she never had to appear in court.

Like Nontokozo, Pearl agrees that even though the financial struggles are hard, they do not compare to the emotional pain that comes with being a single mother; not because the father of your children is dead, but because he simply could not be bothered.

Pearl says that even when they we still together, the father of her children refused to spent any time with them or acknowledge them. When he came over it was only to see her.

Now they speak about him only when they have to and when his program comes up on the TV, they change channels.

The duty to support is one of the principles that helps the family courts come to decisions when deciding on child maintenance cases. Rabie says many parents forget this duty and make it all about the money.

'It's not about you and how much you earn. It's about what is in the best interest of the child."

By Mamaponya Motsai.