South Africa


Towards a systemic approach for eradicating poverty and inequality

With the duration of the lockdown, pandemic and recovery unclear, it is essential for the government to support the call for an increase of R500 in the child support grant, say the writers. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

Ahead of the 25th commemoration of South Africa’s attainment of democracy, it is all the more important to address conceptual issues around poverty and inequality since we now hold the unflattering status as the most unequal country in the world.

The complexity of poverty and inequality in South Africa and the multiple factors behind it, across a range of structural and psychosocial dimensions of the social experience, require that we develop explanations which account for its durability and persistence. These explanations must make clear, firstly, the multiple facets and interrelationships of poverty and inequality, and, secondly, how, in their reach into the everyday experience of South Africans, they work.

Making clearer what these conditions are required that we build on current explanations and work towards a specific South African accounting of what poverty and inequality are. Are there elements of a South African explanation of poverty and inequality that are distinctive and different from an explanation of poverty and inequality in other contexts and countries?

Economic factors have been decisive in the production of the divides between the rich and the poor. They have, however, depended on and been accompanied by powerful ideological processes which the historian Keith Breckenridge (2014) in his work The Biometric State has described eloquently. These processes include racial classification and racial ordering – the management of bodies and their deployment in the interests of the colonial and apartheid projects.

Developing an approach to Poverty and Inequality

Poverty and inequality are not the same, of course. The distinction should be simple: poverty is when people don’t have very much and inequality is when some people have more than others. However, extreme inequality across society is usually reflected in deep poverty versus extreme wealth within combinations that would in my view justify the discussion of both concepts together.

Poverty and inequality are in this period of globalisation characterised by familiar constants.

The first constant is the ubiquity of the modern global financial system in which poverty and inequality are set. Since the end of World War II, no part of the world is economically independent, isolated and self-contained. This bears on a second constant – the form that the global economy has taken in the last 30 years.

It is characterised almost everywhere by the retreat of certain parts of the modern state and the rise of the market as the primary mechanism for the distribution of goods and services. Broadly described as neo-liberalism, the world’s economies have virtually all aligned themselves with the broad tenets of this market “common-sense”. With these developments, the world has seen a decline in absolute poverty but, simultaneously, a rise in economic inequality. South Africa has been no exception to this.

There are however distinctive factors and dynamics surrounding the forms of poverty and inequality that have historically developed and continue to manifest themselves that make the South African situation unique. While there is an awareness of this distinctiveness, it is important to begin to understand firstly, the nature and character of South African poverty and inequality, secondly the causal and constitutive elements behind them, and thirdly, why they are so durable as social phenomena.

The Economy as the Primary Force

The recent work of Thomas Piketty (2014) has brought renewed attention to the debate on poverty and inequality. On the basis of data spanning the economic archive (tax and income records) of much of the last three centuries from more than 20 countries, Piketty arrived at a critical conclusion for explaining inequality. He distilled the explanation into one simple formula which represents the relationship between the average annual rate of return on capital investment.

Piketty explains that “around the world, the largest fortunes (including inherited ones) have grown at very high rates (on the order of 6-7% a year) – significantly higher than the average growth rate of wealth” (Piketty, 2014:431). He found that the average wealth of the richest 0,00002% of the adult population of the world – that is 225 individuals – increased from just over US$1.5-billion in 1987 to nearly US$15-billion in 2013, having grown annually at an average rate of 6.4% above inflation. Average annual global wealth per capita over this same period grew by 2.1% (Piketty, 2014: 434-435).

A point he makes is that these increases in wealth could be represented by those who have inherited their wealth. Critics refer to vast fortunes having been made recently through innovation (Bill Gates, etc.) and that high global growth rates over the last few decades suggest that new fortunes in the emerging economies of the world are making an important contribution to these developments. This system generates extreme effects and unless there is an intervention – such as effectively increased taxation of the super-rich – inequality will simply compound.

Poverty and Inequality from an Intersectional Perspective in South Africa

A great deal of analytic work on poverty and inequality has come out of the South African research community. This work goes back to the First Carnegie Commission which reported in 1932 and is continued with intensity into the present. This work has been extremely influential and has grown in methodological complexity and analytic sophistication.

Of the recent surveys, the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) has been most important and is the first national panel study to study the changing “face of poverty” in South Africa. It has tracked over 28,000 individuals in over 7,000 households over three waves since 2008 (see and also see De Villiers et al, 2013). NIDS has highlighted the factors and social determinants driving South Africans into and out of poverty.

This work has been brought together well by Leibbrandt, Woolard, Finn and Argent (2010) in a briefing paper developed for the OECD, and in a summary of the state of the discussion by Wilson and Cornell (2012: 1). As Wilson and Cornell (ibid) say, the figures make four points clear about contemporary South Africa:

  • Poverty is widespread and severe. In 2008 over half the population lived below the poverty datum line of R515 per capita per annum.

  • Poverty levels fell marginally between 1993 and 2008 from 55% to 54% of the population.

  • The Gini coefficient for the country was 0.70, the highest in the world and,

  • Inequality appeared to be on the increase after 1994, due largely to widening inequality within previously disadvantaged groups.

Each of the conclusions is important. Taken together, however, they emphasise the relevance of the discussion about the complexity of poverty and inequality. Democracy has clearly brought improvement to the country. Poverty has abated somewhat. Inequality has deepened. In this regard, Wilson and Cornell (2012) refer to Braam Hanekom’s identification of the four structural pillars involved in the production of this situation, namely

  • Structural causes;

  • Education;

  • Psychological reasons; and

  • The moral fabric and values of our society.

The importance of Wilson and Cornell’s review is that it locates the economy in a network of gendered, spatialised and racialised relations. The causes of inequality, they argue, are “complex, interactive and have deep and dynamic roots…. Poor South Africans are still typically female, African and rural. Female-headed households are commonly understood to be vulnerable to external shocks given the unequal position of women in society, … “ (Wilson & Cornell, 2012: 7 and 4).

The awareness in the South African discussion of the multifactorial nature of poverty and inequality is also part of the approach of the Mandela Initiative (MI), a major national movement aimed at bringing the political, economic, scholarly and civil society communities together around a process aimed at reducing poverty and inequality in South Africa. Evident in the MI is an understanding of the connectedness and interdependence of the economic, social, cultural and psychological.

Important as this awareness is, issues remain at two levels.

The first problem, one which continues to bedevil description, analysis and action, is the basic characterisation of the sociological nature of South Africa. Is its primary social dynamic that of race or class?

Various pieces of work show that “race” as an effect can be measured in addition to different kinds of social factors that are at play in actual situations and their relative weights. This moves the discussion in South Africa about poverty and inequality significantly ahead. One begins to see not only the joined-up nature of inequality but also a sense of the relative contributions of the factors behind it. Understanding the poverty and inequality dynamics in South Africa in these terms is crucial for developing much clearer policy responses.

The Intersectional Reality

Is that enough? It is important to acknowledge how far in sophistication the South African discussion has come and how it can contribute methodologically to the intersectionality discussion. The pertinent point to which the work of scholars such as Seekings brings us is that we are able to not just recognise factors beyond the economic but to see how extra-economic factors work in relation to the economic.

Scholars such as Seekings have helped us to understand the structural outcomes of race. Using regression analysis he shows how it is possible to distinguish between different kinds of effects when individuals experience discrimination. Class effects stand out from race effects. This is a structural analysis.

How structures land and are acted upon by the social agents themselves is another matter. We don’t see how people who are identified as victims, people of colour, black people, women, and others work with, manage and engage the conditions in which they find themselves.

It is here that the discussion in South Africa, and globally, awaits further engagement. We can begin to say that we are able to locate some of the material and physical dimensions of the pain of poverty and inequality that are being expressed in South Africa. But with our current understandings of the situation, we would have some challenges in how we would take the discussion further.

These challenges present themselves most clearly in the languages, modes of description and analyses that we have at our disposal. We need to understand how material effects, the economy, and the ideological in its full psychological effects, impair eventualities and specifically the ways in which self-doubt debilitates decision-making, produces risk-aversion and incapacity. We must also understand the ways in which it stimulates agency, the decision to psychically and cognitively engage with the complexity of the forces of subordination. Black South Africans have borne the brunt of complex processes of subordination over hundreds of years.

As a space in which the realities of one’s biological sex, one’s socially constructed gender identity and sexuality preferences come together to produce position, hierarchy and a sense of inclusion and exclusion, it is crucial. Race may be the country’s urgent issue now. We have barely, however, scratched the surface of the complexity of gender and the deep ways that its structural and psychic elements not just position South Africans but also interpolate them and condition and animate their subordination and agency. How it comes to entrench the conditions which perpetuate poverty and inequality but also produces opportunities for people to take control of their lives, signals the urgency of new and important work which has to be done.

Acknowledging the imperative to address poverty and inequality through an intersectional lens, has major implications for social science and humanities research. Such research will have to deliberately and purposefully link up with economic and political analyses. A great deal more empirical work is required to take the analysis further. However, the imperative of an intersectional approach also applies to the other leading research institutions and initiatives, both at universities and independent research institutions.

A cooperative approach and shared mining of research evidence calls for joint research ventures, sharing the pool of scholars, expanding this pool by delivering high-quality graduates and interns, and shared platforms. Lastly, such partnerships go far beyond academia.

The South African state – and particularly the current leadership – recognises its responsibilities for addressing poverty and inequality in a comprehensive way. Let this become visible in partnerships around policymaking and implementation where social science and humanities research provides necessary and relevant evidence and models for policy making and implementation, that is where researchers and policymakers become partners.

Finally, are we not first of all dealing with our society at large, human beings in all their rich variety? Let us then do everything to ensure that whatever contribution we make towards equality and shared wealth, provides for the complexities and varieties in this important country and its people. DM

Prof Crain Soudien is the CEO of the Human Sciences Research Council.