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Country analysis > South Africa Last update: 2008-12-17  

Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR)

Poverty and inequality after apartheid

Jeremy Seekings

Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR), University of Cape Town

September 2007

Posted with permission of the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town:
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Introduction: Hopes and claims

Apartheid’s legacy to the democratic South Africa included highly visible income poverty and inequality. Income poverty was not high by the standards of the rest of Africa. The proportion of the South African population with incomes below the equivalent of US$1 per day (adjusted for local purchasing power) was about 24 percent, compared to about 50 percent in countries such as Kenya, Swaziland, Uganda and Senegal, 72 percent in Madagascar, and 85 percent in Zambia.1 But it was much higher than other middle-income countries. The comparable poverty rates in Chile, Mexico and Indonesia were about 15 percent, and in Jamaica, Malaysia and Tunisia they were about 5 percent. Only Brazil matched South Africa(UNDP, 1999: table 4). Income poverty was strikingly visible in South Africa because it coexisted with great affluence, amidst high inequality, and also because this inequality correlated with race. Even though some African people had enjoyed rapid upward income and class mobility in the last years of apartheid, the formerly disfranchised African majority was, for the most part, poor, whilst the small white minority that had held power was conspicuously rich.

Apartheid had perpetuated income poverty and exacerbated income inequality in very obvious ways. African people had been dispossessed of most of their land, faced restricted opportunities for employment or self-employment, were limited to low-quality public education and health care, and were physically confined to impoverished parts of the countryside or cities. At the same time, the white minority had benefited from discriminatory public policies. It was hardly surprising that South Africa competed with Brazil and a handful of other countries for the indignity of having the most unequal distribution of income. Poverty did not exist alongside affluence, because segregation kept the rich and poor apart, but they certainly coexisted in the same country (see Wilson and Ramphele, 1989; Seekings and Nattrass, 2005). Observers from all parts of the political spectrum turned to crudely dualistic descriptions of this reality, distinguishing between the ‘first’ and ‘third world’ parts of the country or analyzing the political economy in terms of ‘internal colonialism’ or (more bizarrely still) ‘colonialism of a special type’.

Democratisation was therefore accompanied by high hopes that income poverty and inequality would be reduced. The poor were to be enfranchised, the pro-poor and pro-black African National Congress (ANC) would be elected into office, and public policies and private practices would be deracialised. The ANC promised ‘a better life for all’ in its 1994 election campaign. Its election manifesto – the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) – promised that ‘attacking poverty and deprivation’ would be ‘the first priority of the democratic government’. The RDP would empower the poor to seize opportunities ‘to develop to their full potential’ and ‘to sustain themselves through productive activity’, with the state ensuring improved access to social security, public education and other services. All South Africans should enjoy ‘a decent living standard and economic security’ (ANC, 1994: 15, 16, 79).

The ANC-led government adopted a modernist approach to the challenge of development. The apartheid state never collected data on poverty among African people, but even before the 1994 election the ANC joined with the World Bank and the University of Cape Town to conduct South Africa’s first countrywide income and expenditure survey. After taking office, the ANC-led government immediately transformed the parastatal statistics agency (renamed Statistics South Africa) and invested heavily in the collection of statistics on poverty, first through the October Household Surveys (OHSs) and Income and Expenditure Surveys (IESs), and later the General Household Surveys (GHSs), as well as on labour market issues (through dedicated Labour Market Surveys or LFSs). A major study of poverty and inequality was commissioned in 1995-96. A range of public policies were reoriented around ‘developmental’ concerns.

Socio-economic rights were also included in the 1996 constitution. Section 27 specifies that ‘(1) Everyone has the right to have access to (a) health care services, …; (b) sufficient food and water; and (c) social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependents, appropriate social assistance. (2) The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realization of each of these rights.’ Section 28 stipulates specific rights for children, and Section 29 establishes rights to education. These and other rights are said to be based on the ‘democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom’ (section 7, para 2). The Constitutional Court has stated that realizing socio-economic rights is necessary if citizens are to enjoy the other rights enshrined in the constitution and if South Africa is to become a society based on the above values.

The ANC and government were quick to claim that they had made progress. In the 1999 elections, the ANC campaigned around the general theme that South Africa was ‘changing’, although this change needed to be ‘speeded up’ (Lodge, 1999). In 2003, in an assessment anticipating ten years of democratic government, the government acknowledged that poverty had grown but implied that this was more than offset by redistributive measures (South Africa, 2003). In the 2004 elections, the ANC claimed that it had laid the ‘foundation for a better life’, including two million new jobs and expanded public services. It called on citizens to vote for it ‘so that together we can do more to achieve a Better Life for All’. Its election manifesto – entitled ‘A people’s contract to create work and fight poverty’ – emphasized the creation of ‘a more caring society’ and a ‘radical’ reduction in unemployment and poverty (ANC, 2004). The following year, a senior ANC member (and billionaire) Cyril Ramaphosa was quoted as saying that new data showed that South Africans had ‘never had it so good’ (SAARF, nd). In May 2006, President Mbeki himself told Parliament that ‘between 1994 and 2004, the real incomes of the poorest 20 percent of our population increased by 30 percent’ (Mbeki, 2006). More detail was provided in the government’s ‘discussion document’ on ‘Macro-Social Trends’: ‘[T]he proportion of people with low (poverty) income increased marginally during the period 1993 to 2000’, the government conceded, but recent research ‘shows that there has been a marked decline in poverty since 2000, from approximately 18,5 million poor people to approximately 15,4 million poor people in 2004’ (South Africa, 2006: 12).

This positive representation of progress since 1994 contrasts with the negative assessments made by a long series of unashamedly left scholars. In the most recent version of this critique, the ubiquitous journalist John Pilger proclaims that ‘apartheid did not die’ (Pilger, 2006). Affluent spaces in the new South Africa might be populated by black people wearing matching Gucci sunglasses and suits alongside still privileged white people, Pilger claims, but the lives of the poor were unchanged, to the extent that the poor – or ‘poors’, as they are sometimes called (Desai, 2002) – have risen up in protest, in the streets and through ‘new’ social movements.

  1. No national data on food consumption are collected in South Africa, so it is not possible to compare South Africa with other countries according to standard nutritional criteria.

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