In the 1998 parliamentary debate on reconciliation and nation-building, then deputy
president Thabo Mbeki famously argued that South Africa comprised two ‘nations’
divided by poverty:
One of these nations is white, relatively prosperous, regardless of gender
or geographic dispersal. It has ready access to a developed economic,
physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure … The
second and larger nation of South Africa is black and poor, with the
worst affected being women in the rural areas, the black rural population
in general and the disabled. This nation lives under conditions of a grossly
underdeveloped economic, physical, educational, communication and
other infrastructure. It has virtually no possibility to exercise what in
reality amounts to a theoretical right to equal opportunity.2
Eradicating poverty was fundamental to transformation, Mbeki argued. To a chorus
of unhappiness from opposition parties, he reached a bleakly pessimistic conclusion:
‘[W]e are not one nation, but two nations. And neither are we becoming one nation’.3
The issue re-emerged in 2003, when the South African Human Rights Commission
released a report critical of government’s performance regarding socio-economic
rights, following the publication of a number of studies which concluded that poverty
levels in South Africa had remained constant or worsened since the advent of
democracy. Opposition parties took up the refrain: ‘Life is no better now than in
1994’. The African National Congress (ANC) responded furiously, reminding its
critics of the massive political changes in the country and the restoration of dignity
to black South Africans, as well as of government’s not inconsiderable achievements
in providing infrastructure4 – all of which are key elements in contemporary
definitions of poverty, if conveniently forgotten by critics attempting to score political
points rather make substantive ones.
Politicking aside, the exchange between the ANC and opposition parties in 2003
was notable in the way it skirted inequality and redistribution. Thabo Mbeki’s ‘two
nations’ speech had been similarly silent on inequality while loud on poverty. Both
poverty and inequality are South African hallmarks, but this essay argues that inequality poses the most serious threat to the democratic project. Government is
caught in the unenviable position of balancing the needs of market stability (in a
world dominated by free market economics) and appeasing domestic and international
capital with trying to undo the damage of 350 years of colonialism.
While government, opposition and business may all be wary of issues relating to
inequality and redistribution, why did Mbeki’s seemingly self-evident assertion that
blacks are overwhelmingly poor and whites overwhelmingly wealthy generate angry
debate? Moreover, how is it that ‘the distribution of income appears to have become
more unequal between 1991 and 1996’5 and both poverty and inequality seem to
have worsened under an ANC government? This essay suggests some possible answers.
It begins by reviewing the status of poverty and inequality in South Africa before
turning to the political contestation over how to lessen both. While the political
debates are heated and intense, this essay argues that they are (at least partly)
fuelled by a more prosaic consideration, namely the fact that ‘poverty’ has many
meanings within government and the progressive movement more broadly, as it does
among academics and commentators. The impact of definitional imprecision has
been and remains considerable, affecting development programmes while fuelling
ill-tempered, if ultimately rather hollow, debate.
- My thanks to Cathi Albertyn and Edgar Pieterse for their helpful comments.
- T. Mbeki, Africa: The time has come, (Cape Town, Tafelberg/Mafube, 1998), p.72 .
- Mbeki, Africa, p.72.
- ANC today, 3:14 (April 2003), (see http://www.anc.org.za).
- Transforming the present: Protecting the future, (Pretoria, Department of Social Development,
2002), report of the Committee of Inquiry into a Comprehensive System of Social Security for South