PAUL HOFFMAN: Ageism remains a major frontier of unfair discrimination

by | Aug 1, 2023 | General | 0 comments

Ageism, says the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is “prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of age”. The related adjective “aged” has a secondary meaning the same source defines as “having lived long, old”.

One “comes of age” when adult status is reached and one is “under age” when one is not yet of adult status or not old enough. In this discussion, the young, and such ageism as may exist regarding the young, are not discussed.

The topic is discrimination on the grounds of old age. The perspective is that of a “baby boomer” born in 1950.

SA, with its history of colonialism and apartheid, is the world leader on the topic of unfair discrimination. Our bill of rights, the second chapter of our much-vaunted constitution, says in section 9, the equality clause, that no person, including the state, may discriminate unfairly directly or indirectly against anyone “on the grounds of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth”.

These forms of discrimination are regarded as unfair unless it is established that the discrimination is fair. There is thus a reverse onus on the person or institution accused of unfair discrimination to show that the form of discrimination in question (not allowing children to drive, bans on smoking and alcohol use and the like) is actually fair.

So far it has not been tested whether packing granny and grandpa off to a retirement ‘village’, old-age home or frail-care facility is fair

So far it has not been tested whether packing granny and grandpa off to a retirement “village”, old-age home or frail-care facility is fair or unfair. It is often a matter of degree and of the culture of those who may be accused of ageism.

In some cultures the aged are embraced, held close, revered, respected for their accumulated wisdom or wealth and lauded for their life skills, successes with child-rearing, experience in dealing with life’s conflicts and many other qualities that the young simply do not have and cannot be expected to have. As they say, “It takes 50 years to accumulate 50 years of experience.”

However, the pressures of modern life often find the elderly left behind or discarded by those trying, in challenging circumstances, to make their way in the world. All too often the aged are resented, discarded, ignored and ill-treated. The biggest challenges for the elderly include ageism and a lost sense of purpose, financial insecurity, difficulty with everyday tasks and mobility, finding the right care provision, access to health-care services when good health fails, and end-of-life preparations.

Research in the US reveals that seven out of 10 people would prefer to die at home, surrounded by family and familiarity. Sadly, seven out of 10 actually die in a health-care facility or hospice.

In SA, no-one should view the aged as helpless victims of their lot. We have a Human Rights Commission (HRC) tasked with protecting human rights that are threatened or infringed. It is a free service that anyone, young or old, can use for the purpose of lodging a complaint of ageism, or indeed any human rights infraction.

When social grants to women in SA commenced at age 60 but for men at age 65, an armed man strolled into the Cape Town offices of the HRC to demand an end to the unfair discrimination against men involved in making them wait an extra five years for their state pensions. He did not need to use his weapon; now there is gender age parity in social welfare grants for the aged.

Spells out

We have on our statute book an Older Persons Act, which was passed in 2006 and came into effect in 2010. Its long title reads: “To deal effectively with the plight of older people by establishing a framework aimed at the empowerment and protection of older people and at the promotion and maintenance of their status, rights, wellbeing, safety and security; and to provide for matters connected therewith.”

The preamble of the act spells out the need for the law in our human rights-friendly dispensation: “Whereas the constitution establishes a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights and seeks to improve the quality of life of all citizens and to free the potential of each person;

“And whereas, in terms of the bill of rights as set out in the constitution, everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected; And whereas the state must create an enabling environment in which the rights in the bill of rights must be respected, protected and fulfilled;

“And whereas it is necessary to effect changes to existing laws relating to older people to facilitate accessible, equitable and affordable services to older people and to empower older people to continue to live meaningfully and constructively in a society that recognises them as important sources of knowledge, wisdom and expertise….”

As a matter of policy the act aims to introduce community-based care in place of institutional care, with a view to keeping the elderly in their homes for as long as is possible. This policy is designed to enhance the inherent dignity of those among the elderly who prefer not to be packed off to institutional existence.


Elderly people of means, a tiny minority, have more options than those living in poverty — that is, those who make up 55% of the population. Even in the middle class, far too few people prepare for their old age adequately and many find themselves dependent on family, friends and, as a last resort, the state, to make ends meet in their twilight years. These facts are a source of great tension and anxiety not only for the aged but also for their families.

The demographics of the planet suggest that the aged are becoming an ever-larger proportion of the global population. In Africa, the youngest and fastest-growing continent, 60% of the population is younger than 25 years. The total population of Africa is expected to rise to close to 4-billion by 2100, with an ever-increasing proportion of elderly citizens.

According to statistics portal Statista’s 2021 data, Europe is leading in the proportion of the population that is elderly — those over 65 — at 19%, followed by North America at 17%, Oceania at 13%, and Asia and South America at 9% each. Africa, which has the lowest average life expectancy, also has the lowest proportion of elderly at only 4%. This data was extracted just a year ago, in March 2022.

In SA, where the total population is getting close to 60-million, the percentage of the population aged 65 and above was reported at 5.97% in 2021, according to the World Bank collection of development indicators, compiled from officially recognised sources. SA’s elderly population thus exceeds the continental average of 4% by nearly two points.

As they rise in numbers and as a proportion of the population, the elderly will come into their own as a power block or pressure group in the political and social life of an ageing world population. While green parties may not be replaced by wrinkly parties soon, political parties will ignore the needs, preferences and demands of the elderly at their peril at polling time.

As SA is a state that is obliged by law to respect, protect, promote and fulfil all human rights included in the bill of rights, it behoves the people to do likewise, especially for the elderly. The young need to remember that they too will be old someday. “Do as you would be done by”, is the message.

• Hoffman, an advocate, is a director of Accountability Now.

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