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Country analysis > South Africa Last update: 2020-11-27  

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It is often said that global targets are easily set but seldom met and for each success story there have been some setbacks, South Africa is not an exception to this fact, when it comes to Millennium Development Goals. Progress in reducing poverty in Africa is further worsened by the highly skewed income distribution.

All countries including South Africa have signed up to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At present it is clear that many countries are not on course to meet the various targets associated with these Goals. Although low rates of economic growth are often the main reason, high levels of inequality within countries also play a role. This is either because they raise the rate of economic growth required to achieve the targets and fail in their distributive policies or because they lower the rate of economic growth itself and have nothing to distribute as a way of fighting poverty. Furthermore, even when countries are on course to meet the targets at the national level, rates of progress for different groups of people within countries are sometimes highly unequal.

In the past ten years of new political dispensation in South Africa, many studies have examined the extent of poverty and inequality, as well as their link to labour market, growth and access to services. According to statistics, income poverty in South Africa declined between 1995 and 2002, from 51.1 per cent of the population in 1995 to 48.5 per cent in 2002, using the national poverty line. Given that the population has grown in the same period, the total number of poor increased from 20.2 million in 1995 to 21.9 million in 2002. It is also on record that poverty in South Africa continues to have gender, race, family-type and spatial dimensions. Given the South African unique history of long years of racial segregation under the policy of apartheid, diversity in culture, race and income groups, policy priorities may vary across provinces and time. Policies also vary in response to the development goals and targets of each province and local governments. South Africa’s many problems originate from political and socioeconomic policies associated with the apartheid period that ended in 1994.

The racial segregation under the policy of apartheid can be traced back to the election of the predominantly Afrikaner National Party in 1948, which then extended racial discrimination further in the control and ownership of resources throughout the economy. This was formalised through the enforcement of a wide range of legislation of which the population Registration Act of 1950 was one of the major cornerstones. The latter Act classified the population into four racial categories namely, Whites, Coloured (people of mixed racial origin), Indians (descendants of Indian indentured workers who came to work on the Natal sugar plantations from India during the British colonial rule), and the indigenous African people. This classification structured differential access to societal resources.

Other apartheid laws, which had a major impact on the lives of the people, were the pass laws, the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 and the Group Areas Act of 1966. The movement of African people was strictly regulated and their permanent residence was confined to designated ethnic homelands. These homelands served as a reservoir of labour for the commercial firms, mines and industrial centres of White South Africa.1

Historically, the bond between the ANC, the trade union movements and the South African Communist Party (SACP) was expressed by a unity of purpose: namely ‘the revolutionary mission of liberating black people in general and Africans in particular’2. The Alliance articulated its consensus on the South African development path in the Reconstruction and Development Programmes (RDP). This was characterized by at least three inter-related features, namely: (a) growth through redistribution (b) a mixed economy with a state actively committed to development, emphasising poverty eradication and service delivery and, (c) a people driven approach to policy making. Diversely mass-based political organisations were signatories to the RDP document. The RDP consensus provided the ANC-led government with the opportunity to enjoy widespread support for its post-election policies, especially amongst the African population, the main constituencies of these organisations.

  1. UNICEF, (1996) Transcending the Legacy of Apartheid, Pretoria, South Africa
  2. Ramatlodi (2001) see

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