Sky really is the limit: the lowdown on Alex Crawford's reporting

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Earlier this month, Alex Crawford of Sky News ran a report claiming that Eastern Cape women were deliberately drinking alcohol during pregnancy in order to subsequently claim a disability grant for the child. The story went on to be picked up by a number of other high-profile international news outlets. But experts are clear: there is absolutely no research – and very little evidence – to support this alarming, and potentially destructive, claim.

DISCLOSURE: On Thursday, 6 September 2012, SKY News triumphantly ran the story by Alex Crawford, in which she, in effect, reverse-engineered Greg Marinovich's work on the Marikana murders and presented it as her own discovery, without crediting Marinovich or Daily Maverick. Two days later, we sent a polite letter to Ms Crawford pointing out that she had not given credit where it was due. We offered to meet and resolve the issue. Ms Crawford's response was a relatively polite but still arrogant counter-attack in which she expressed confusion at our unhappiness. Those were busy days – we decided it was more important for us to continue working around the clock to uncover the full truth of SA's most horrific post-Apartheid massacre than to actually shed our politeness and unpack her transgressions point per point. In any case, we at Daily Maverick learnt about Ms Crawford's ethics the hard way.

So yes, before you start reading this article, be aware of the fact that we're not the world's biggest fans of Alex Crawford's work. When in early January Sky ran her sensational report on SA mothers' alleged systematic drinking to cause harm to their unborn children, we were not surprised. It was the point at which we simply had to draw the line. What follows is the result of Rebecca Davis' quest for the truth vs. Alex Crawford's report. - Ed.

“Horrifying story of pregnant South Africans who are deliberately binge drinking… so they get more welfare for the babies they harm,” ran a headline on the world’s most read news website, the Daily Mail, on 7 January. The Daily Mail had nabbed the story from Sky, who aired their report a few days earlier and ran it on their website under the headline: “South Africa: Women Drinking to Harm Babies”.

In the Eastern Cape, Sky's Alex Crawford claimed, some women had cottoned on to the fact that “disability allowance” (actually, the Care Dependency Grant) is “far more lucrative” than the child support grant. This fact, she claimed, “has led to a spike in the numbers of babies born with disabilities”. In their news article on the matter, not a shred of evidence is presented for this claim, despite the fact that it is the focal point of the story. However, in the video clip which accompanies the story, a lone woman – “Mary” – is shown speaking on camera in Afrikaans while a voiceover explains that the Care Dependence Grant – R1,200 per month – would allow her to send her other four children to school.

This extract is presented entirely devoid of context, so it’s not clear what question was asked to elicit this response. It’s also not clear where Mary lives. From here, the video cuts to “a charity crèche” in Helenvale, where we are told that three-quarters of the children suffer from Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. (It is not mentioned that the centre – Miracle Kids, part of the Cleary Estate Cheshire Home – caters only for severely handicapped pre-schoolers.) Much of the remainder of the four-minute clip is taken up with exploring general alcoholism in what we assume is the Helenvale community, and the existence of illicit shebeens. No further evidence, beyond Mary’s words, is provided of the link between a desire for the Child Dependence Grant and drinking while pregnant.

Africa Check, the fact-checking NGO run in partnership with the journalism department of Wits, investigated the story after being tipped off by a local journalist who found the claim unlikely. Africa Check established that the original source of the claim was an article in the PE Herald published in September last year. This story presented the claim in no less categorical terms than Sky: “Impoverished pregnant teenage girls in Nelson Mandela Bay are drinking heavily so their babies can be born with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder – enabling them to qualify for a R1,200 disability grant rather than the R280 child grant”.

The Herald’s evidence for this was twofold: firstly, the testimony of a mother with a child with FASD who claimed that “Out of every 100 girls, 99 are getting pregnant and drinking to get the grant”. Secondly, the testimony of the manager of the same Miracle Kids centre visited by Sky, Gennie Hendricks, who said that she “regularly” saw young girls getting pregnant and giving birth to kids with FASD in order to claim a care grant. But Africa Check could find no supporting evidence of this. Leana Olivier, the head of the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR), told Africa Check: “FARR colleagues have interviewed thousands of pregnant women and mothers of children with FASD to date and have not come across one single mother who reported that she ‘drank on purpose to cause disability in her child so as to qualify for a disability grant’.” Africa Check concluded that the story appeared to be “entirely unsubstantiated”.

At the Daily Maverick, we also felt that the story sounded deeply fishy, so we turned to experts for help. Beth Goldblatt, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Wits Law School, told us that she felt the media reports in question were built on “sensationalising and generalising”. While it is true that South Africa has some of the highest rates of FASD in the world, she said, the question of whether there is a link between alcohol abuse during pregnancy and a deliberate attempt to give birth to potentially brain-damaged children is highly questionable.

“For one thing, it’s premised on the presumption that poor people will carry out irrational behaviour,” Goldblatt said. “Would anyone at all rational behave in this way? Would someone want to give birth to a child with a potentially serious disability, requiring a great deal of money and care to treat, for such a small amount of money?”

Gabrielle Kelly, a PhD researcher in the Centre for Social Science Research and Sociology Department at UCT, told the Daily Maverick that it was by no means guaranteed that the mother of a child with FASD would receive the care dependency grant (CDG). “The CDG must be approved by doctors and is given to mothers whose children are found in need of full-time and special care,” Kelly said. “The child would therefore likely need to be strongly affected by FAS and it is unlikely, in my opinion, that the mother of any child with FAS would automatically receive the grant.” Kelly pointed out that a 2010 study of mothers in the Western Cape with children with FAS found that only 2,27% of grants received by the mothers were the CDGs.

UCT Medical School Public Health head Leslie London noted that these kinds of myths about abuse of the social grant system are in common circulation in South Africa. “We have had similar claims, for less implausible social ills in the past, all shown to be unfounded,” London said. “For example, there was at one stage a firm belief that young women were getting pregnant in order to access social grants. Given massive unemployment, persistent poverty, one might think there could be plausible grounds for such a claim.”

One high-profile figure who appeared to believe the story that teenagers were getting pregnant in order to claim grants was President Jacob Zuma. He condemned the practice while on the campaign trail in the Western Cape in 2008.

Someone else who seems to endorse it is, of course, Sky’s Alex Crawford, who intones: “Each [non-FASD] child means R250 a month in state benefits to Mary,” in the clip mentioned above. But research commissioned by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and released in 2007 found absolutely no evidence for the claim. Writing for The Star in 2008, current African Centre for Migration & Society researcher Marlise Richter noted that “the researchers could find no relationship between teenage fertility and uptake of the grant. In fact, the authors noted that teenage fertility rates started to decline when the CDG was introduced in 1998 – a direct contradiction of the myths.”

After all, Richter pointed out, it’s not like there isn’t a raft of other reasons in a South African context to explain why teenagers might be falling pregnant. “Given the violence against women and the coerced sex that besets our society, not to speak of the power and legitimacy afforded violent masculinities, it is at every level more plausible to link teenage pregnancies to the lack of choice or decision-making power that many young girls (and many adult women for that matter) face when it comes to sex,” she wrote.

The myth that people were deliberately injuring themselves or falling sick in order to claim a disability grant was at one stage widespread too. In 2006, the Department of Social Development commissioned a study by Kesho Consulting to look into the matter. Their report found no evidence of “people changing their behavior in order to access the Disability Grant”. Erstwhile Minister of Social Development Zola Skweyiya said at the time: “Reports of such incidents are so far anecdotal and unverifiable. The increase in disability grant take-up rates often have more to do with people’s inability to enter the labour market and the scarcity of employment opportunities”.

Kelly said that her own research, in a community with a high uptake of social grants, had found that “the poor and sick are inclined to use their bodies to negotiate access to social support”. However, she stressed, “this is more likely to take the form of making appeals based on existing medical conditions than intentional self-harm”. Kelly posited that the same might apply to women with children with FASD: “They may be glad that they get access to a grant, but that does not necessarily mean that they would have intentionally harmed their child”.

Lizahn Cloete, Chief Occupational Therapist at the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at UCT, recently wrote her doctoral thesis on developing FASD interventions within rural South African communities. Her study took place in Pikeville in the Western Cape, where FASD had been identified as a major problem, and her research subjects were women who had drank heavily during pregnancy. Among the many important points made in her thesis was the confluence of social and personal factors which may lead someone to continue drinking during pregnancy. Drinking while pregnant is seen as such a taboo that stories like the PE Herald’s and Sky’s may be assumed to be believable because at least it presents a practical motive for harming an unborn child, however abhorrent that is taken to be.

But Cloete points out – based on research, both local and international – that there are other reasons which may play a role. Women may not know how harmful pre-natal exposure to alcohol is; they may drink because it helps them to cope with trauma or difficult life situations; depression and loneliness are also risk factors. They possibly live in environments where heavy drinking is the norm, where there are few recreational activities available outside of alcohol, and where male partners go on drinking heavily throughout pregnancy. Cloete wrote of Pikeville: “When a woman consumed alcohol during pregnancy it did not seem problematic in relation to heavy alcohol consumption of other people in the community.”

Of the women Cloete studied, all knew that alcohol use during pregnancy was undesirable, though not all knew why. They were also aware of the stigma attached to alcohol abuse during pregnancy. One started drinking heavily after the rape that produced her pregnancy. A number started drinking heavily after being kicked out by boyfriends or families after announcing their pregnancy. Her thesis contains no mention of the CDG being an influence on their drinking.  “The group of mothers who partook in the study exuded tremendous humility,” Cloete wrote. “They were not only concerned for their own well-being, but also cared for friends and neighbours in need.” When talking about the effects of their alcohol abuse on their children, they became emotional.

Cloete’s thesis criticises media reports which depict mothers who consume alcohol during pregnancy as “uncaring, irresponsible or lazy”, because blaming only the mother avoids addressing the structural factors feeding the behaviour.  Alcohol dependence is often the expression of socio-political conditions, she points out. The Sky report presented the responsibility for stopping harmful drinking in the Eastern Cape as falling to the police, by means of raiding illegal shebeens and throwing away liquor. Clearly, this does nothing to address the root problems of the communities involved – and has echoes of the Apartheid years when the access of black people to alcohol was restricted as a means of social control.  

FASD is under-studied in a local context, as is the CDG. Until such time as wider research has been undertaken, speculation like that published by the PE Herald, Sky and other outlets is arguably irresponsible if it leads to a perception that perverse use of grants is widespread. “Conservative groups continually argue that grant recipients are wasteful and fraudulent, which is used to create arguments against grants,” says Goldblatt. But on the contrary, available research shows that grants are by and large working as they should, particularly when it comes to children: “Research has consistently found a correlation between social grants and positive childhood development,” writes Richter.

Written by: Rebecca Davis

Picture credit:

  • Rebecca Davis is a graduate of Rhodes and Oxford Universities. This article was published on the Daily Maverick website.