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The politics of poverty

David Everatt1

November 2003

Posted with permission of the author.
This chapter was published in 'The (real) state of the nation: South Africa after 1990' (Vol. 4, No. 3, 2003)
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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.

  1. My thanks to Cathi Albertyn and Edgar Pieterse for their helpful comments.
  2. T. Mbeki, Africa: The time has come, (Cape Town, Tafelberg/Mafube, 1998), p.72 .
  3. Mbeki, Africa, p.72.
  4. ANC today, 3:14 (April 2003), (see
  5. 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 Africa, p.16.

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