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Uprooting or re-rooting poverty in post-apartheid South Africa?

A literature review

Ashwin Desai

SANPAD / University of KwaZulu-Natal

Poverty Reduction Thematic Workshop: 24 & 25 May 2005

SARPN acknowledges permission from Dr Anshu Padayachee, national programme director of SANPAD, to post this report on SARPN website.
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…freedom translates into having a supply of clean water; having electricity on tap; being able to live in a decent home, and having a good job; to have accessible healthcare. I mean, what's the point of having made this transition if the quality of life of these people is not enhanced and improved? If not, the vote is useless!
Desmond Tutu, 19991

Past and Present

"In South Africa we can regard (black) poverty as the carcass left over from (white) acquisition".2

In 1989 Francis Wilson and Mamphela Ramphele published a book entitled Uprooting Poverty.3 The book reflected on the research conducted under the auspices of the Second Carnegie Report into poverty. This was the first comprehensive study of black poverty in South Africa. For the authors there were "three interlocking factors which, taken together, justify the assertion that poverty in South Africa is unique. First is the width of the gulf between rich and poor, the degree of inequality. Second…is the extent to which the poverty that exists is a consequence of deliberate policy. The third aspect has to do with the way in which material poverty in South Africa is reinforced by racist polices that are an assault on people's humanity."4 In chapter after chapter, statistics - from the high rate of black infant mortality to lack of access to basic services to unemployment figures - reveal the horrific macro impact of apartheid. For example in 1980 while Africans made up 73% of the population, they only garnered 24.9 of income. Whites had 64.9% of income while making up 15% of the population. In terms of the Gini coefficient, South Africa had the highest measure of inequality of the 57 countries for which data was available. Infant mortality rates among whites was 12 deaths per 1000 births while among Africans the rate ranged from 94 to 124 deaths per 1000 births. While 1 per cent of white households were without electricity, some 80 per cent of African households were without electricity.5 However stark these statistics are, it is in the personal stories that one gets a real insight into the devastation and hopes of those who lived under apartheid.

"When you are out of a job, you realize that the boss and the government have the power to condemn you to death. If they send you back home (and back home now there's a drought) and you realize you can't get any job, it's a death sentence. The countryside is pushing you to the cities to survive, the cities are pushing you into the countryside to die." (Migrant worker)6

A description of the condition of old people in rural Ciskei noted:

"old people … past fending and fighting for their rights. They may be found in dark rooms, and ragged beds. Mostly hungry, often filthy. Their hunger makes them confused and even less able to manage, and if you visit their homes you may find:
  • An emaciated old woman, dignified and uncomplaining, until she becomes confused from her hunger and cries out again and again, 'I am hungry, I am hungry'.
  • A thorough search of the room and cupboards reveal only some salt, and her primus and pot are shining bright as if waiting for food to cook.
  • Or a paralysed old woman, persistently scraping the bottom of an empty pot and putting her claw-like hand into her mouth in a despairing imitation of eating.
  • This week, I saw an old man bludgeoned by poverty into…vacant apathy, alive only because he was not dead; who only said when asked what was wrong, 'I am hungry.'"7
The on-going complicity and gratuitousness of government in creating poverty and suffering is evidenced in the story of Mzolisi Fani, who four years earlier had had a good job and a secure home on the white owned farm where he was born.

"Then ownership of the farm changed hands. That simple transaction set off a chain of personal disasters, turning Mr Fani and his family from comparatively prosperous farm workers into penniless vagrants living in squalor on a patch of scrubland near the Eastern Cape port of East London…It is a problem that has not drawn much sympathy from municipal authorities in East London, whose black townships rank among the most blighted in this country. Last November, the bush hovels of Mr Fani and nine other families living in similar poverty were inexplicably burned down after a police raid. Since then, most of the 81 squatters whose shacks were destroyed have been living in misery in eight small tents loaned by the South African Red Cross. Winter is approaching but they have yet to be offered permanent homes. Mr Fani, 28, says his problems began four years ago when the new owners of the Sunsweather Farm, near Beacon's Bay, sacked the previous workforce. The South African employment laws offer no protection to farm workers or domestic servants. When Mr Fani lost his job, he also lost the farm cottage he had lived all his life. The family traveled to East London; they had relatives living in Cambridge, a tiny township tucked out of sight behind the city's abattoir. Mr Fani joined a small group of other squatters living in rudimentary shacks among the bushes on the edge of the township. They had no water. For toilets they used the bush.

For four years they managed undisturbed. Then, at 3:30 a.m. on 8 November last year, a group of municipal policemen accompanied by South African police kitskonstabels (auxiliary special constables) raided the camp. They said they were looking for marijuana. All the men were arrested and charged with illegally squatting. When they were released, they found all their shacks burnt down. Mr Fani's wife, Numzi, who had been left at the camp with her baby, said she had seen blue-uniformed kitskonstabels throw something burning into their home".8

At the end of the book Wilson and Ramphele posed the following issues: "Will political liberation necessarily be accompanied by a significant improvement in the material conditions and the quality of life of the very poor? The fact that the answer to the latter question could be and has been 'no' for a number of African countries is a measure of the extent of the challenge in South Africa. There is nothing inevitable about the economic consequences of redistributing political power. Everything will depend on the capacity of the new society, not least of its leadership and of the variety of organizational structures available at the time, to move in that the right direction within the limits of what is feasible. It is not impossible, as the recent history of Latin America makes all to plain, that the hard won-gains of a long political struggle be lost in a few months or years either by provocation (for example through unnecessary hyperinflation) or a revolutionary counter-coup or by the sacrifice of the claims of the poor to the selfishness of a new elite."9

Ten years after the coming of democracy, we can rule out either right-wing coups or hyperinflation as the cause for the non-materialisation at an economic level of the hard-won political gains mentioned above. That the poor remain as large a group as ever and that their experience of poverty is as suffused with suffering as in the past, seems to be an intractable feature of post-liberation South Africa. The United Nations Development (UNDP) revealed in its 2004 report that the poverty rate in South Africa stood at 48%.10 The Taylor Commission reported a poverty rate of between 45 and 55%. Charles Meth holds that there were some 19.5 million people living below the poverty line in 2002, up from the 1997 figure of 17.2 million. Of these people somewhere between 7 and 15 million are living in utter destitution.11 A government agency Statistics South Africa reports that households with less than R670 a month increased from 20% of the population in 1995 to 28% in 2000.12

Given the above one would expect a vibrant and insightful debate to be taking place within various academic disciplines on how to tackle and eradicate poverty. Instead, with a few notable exceptions, there exists a relative paucity to the depth of literature on poverty in South Africa. This is surprising given the scale of the problem this literature identifies13 as well as the fact that addressing poverty and inequality, though coded in nationalist terms, forms the very basis of the present government's claims to moral, political and electoral standing. The literature that does exist is marked by repetition, with chunks of articles published elsewhere often regurgitated in other journals; the same few primary sources of data tabulated over and over and the same hobby-horses taken out for a trot. The academic work on poverty is further largely descriptive, easy points being scored in decrying the apartheid and colonial era causes and state of poverty - but with precious little in-depth critique or conceptual engagement with present government policy. It is not unusual for an article to be so qualified and technocratic that, after ten pages of analysis, a conclusion as vague and timid as the following is reached: "On the balance, it is likely that poverty has worsened as well".14

What I propose to do below is first to give an overview of key issues and debates taking place on the question of poverty in South Africa. Second, I will be making suggestions as to areas within the general poverty discourse that may benefit from having the spotlight of an international conference shone on them and, as important, those fields of knowledge that have been farmed to exhaustion and irrelevance. Papers addressing the former issues could be solicited and aired while those that exhibit the latter characteristics can be avoided. For example, surveying the literature, it is apparent that there is a need to achieve consensus, speedily, on what is meant by poverty in the South African situation so that the debate can move on from discussions that seek to describe poverty to those that seek to address it. Of course the definition of poverty may remain a contested area and one would fully expect interest groups in society, such as political parties, to trumpet data in whose reception they have an interest. However, it appears to be high time that serious academics reach some form of fixed understanding of what they are studying, even if it is to describe divergent but settled schools of thought on the subject. At the moment however, one is tempted to agree with Maxwell when he complains about the "bewildering ambiguity with which the term 'poverty' is used, and by the many different indicators proposed to monitor poverty"15. While describing and debating the extent of poverty (whether defined by income, consumption, relative deprivation, basic needs or 'powerlessness') was certainly an important exercise, the figures are mostly trite by now with quibbles between rival researchers being confined to methodological and analytical details that, at best, add or extract 10% of South Africa's population from being defined as poor. The problem is still huge. It seems unnecessary for academics to further burden civil-society, their peers or government with further discriminations, subtle enough to earn another academic publication perhaps, but practically worthless as knowledge.

The tendency to elevate form above substance is evident in other discussions that may even seem to be 'hotly-contested' and thus at the 'cutting edge' of grappling with poverty in this country. An example is the wealth of effort put in to show, contrary to the accusations of growing unemployment put forward by organized labour and other left-wing critics, that the ANC government's GEAR policy has 'created' a few more jobs than it has shed. When researchers producing these results then go on to concede that the labour market has not grown nearly enough to absorb new entrants, one gets the impression that hairs are being split. Surely social development expertise ought to be devoted to the question of how - or indeed whether - this set of government policies (Gear) can meaningfully make a dent in the huge and growing backlog of unemployment that remains. This is the substance of the problem, perhaps overwhelming in scope, but that seems largely disavowed by the many researchers who pour their energies into - and make careers out of - quibbles.

It has been remarked that universities are receding as sites of ideological production compared to the role they played in the 1950 to 1980's in this regard. With a plethora of private institutes, organisations and consultants at the direct service of various social actors, it might be tempting to look for guidance from their intellectual production. Unfortunately, there is little to be derived from the non-academic discourse of poverty which is so over-determined by interest and spin that it is hardly useful for serious policy formulation at all. The words 'development' and 'transformation', as supposed antidotes to poverty, have become "near meaningless" catch-phrases often trundled out quite defensively by politicians and other interest groups to justify all range of decisions and policies16. Hunter, et al, note in this regard in particular, government's extreme sensitivity to the computation or release of adverse economic data. "The Government Communication and Information System sees the need to correct 'mistaken views' about increases in poverty and calls for a social wage"17 at every turn. As we have seen during the HIV/Aids denial debacle, facts and figures government has been content to put out to the public have often been so questionable as to have hardly been based on any science at all.

While I do not wish to suggest the exclusion of intellectuals not associated with a tertiary institution (far from it), care should be taken that those to whom a platform is given have some sort of reputation and/or expertise upon which to base the ideas they propose. The debate on poverty is awash with what journalists refer to as 'spin' and 'advertorial' and it would be a pity if the conference was used to these ends.

I also do not wish to suggest that inputs which are political in nature are to be discouraged in favour of technicist ones. I have already indicated that much of the literature is irrelevantly technicist. Everatt provides a useful way of dividing the inputs made on the subject of poverty between politicians and programme managers.

"The latter require specificity, while the former prioritise political above technical considerations and prefer opacity to a definition of poverty eradication that 'implies someone else will have to forgo those resources'. In a sense these two groups talk past each other; the one insufficiently attuned to art of staying in power and the other inattentive to the "specific programmatic needs of anti-poverty interventions"18

While both opaque political and irrelevant technicist inputs ought to be avoided, serious interventions within these modes of grappling with poverty ought to be grouped together within the structure of the conference so that participants do not 'talk past each other'.

In surveying the literature in more detail hereunder, I will, from time to time, make further suggestions for the conduct of the conference.


  1. Tutu, D quoted in Gumede, W (2005 Thabo Mbeki And The Battle For The Soul of the ANC, Zebra Press, Cape Town, 67

  2. Terreblanche, S paraphrasing Kurien, C., (1978), Poverty, planning and transformation, Bombay, in Terreblanche, S (2002 ) A History of Inequality in South Africa 1652-2002, University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 413

  3. Wilson, F and Ramphele, M. (1989) Uprooting Poverty, David Philip, Cape Town and Johannesburg. The first Carnegie enquiry was conducted in the 1920's and dealt almost exclusively with the problems of urban poverty emanating out of the Great Depression, with the emphasis on the large numbers of poor white people who were forced from the land. As an aside while noting the issue of Black poverty the Commission argued that it was not their mandate and would require a separate study. For details of other studies and conferences see Annexure 1.

  4. Ibid., 4

  5. Ibid.Interestingly, whites share of income was down from 72.9% in 1960, while African share increased from 19.7% to 24.9% in 1980.

  6. Wilson, F and Ramphele, M., op.cit. 96

  7. Ibid, 103

  8. Ibid, 225

  9. Ibid., 355

  10. UNDP 27 November 2004 South Africa Human Development Report 2003

  11. Meth, C (2004) Ideology and Social Policy, Transformation 56, 9

  12. Statistics South Africa (2002) Earning and Spending in South Africa, Pretoria, Statistics South Africa

  13. Perhaps the most upsetting statistic deals with levels of child poverty. Using a poverty line of R430 a month, 74% of children between 0 - 17 years are poor. This is the equivalent of more than 13million children. Using R215 per month poverty line, 54.34% of children in the same category are ultra poor; translating into 9.7 million children. (E Coetzee, J Streek, Monitoring child socio-economic rights : Achievements and challenges, 2004, 17-18.)

  14. Simkins, C., "What happened to the distribution of income in South Africa between 1995 and 2001?"

  15. Maxwell, S., 'The Meaning and measurement of poverty", ODI Poverty Briefing (1999), quoted in Everatt,D (2003) 'The Politics of Poverty' in Everatt,D and Maphai, V (eds) The Real State of the Nation, 2004, 87.

  16. Everatt,D (2003) 'The Politics of Poverty', in The Real State of the Nation, Everatt, D and Maphai, V (eds), Development Update, Special Edition, Interfund, Johanesburg, p 86

  17. Hunter,N, May,J Padayachee,V (2003), "Lessons for the PRSP from Poverty Reduction Strategies in South Africa",Centre for Development Studies, UKZN, Working Paper No.39, p18

  18. Everatt, D (2003), page 89

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