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Chronic and structural poverty in South Africa: challenges for action and research

Andries du Toit

CSSR Working Paper No. 121

Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS)

July 2005

SARPN acknowledges the Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR), UCT as the source of this document:
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This paper is an attempt to reflect on aspects of ongoing research by the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at UWC and the Chronic Poverty Research Centre (CPRC) in Manchester on chronic poverty in South Africa, and to chart key themes and questions for further investigation. It surveys some of the key findings from PLAAS’s research so far, and highlights some of the issues that arise in attempting to make sense of them. These findings cannot yet speak to poverty dynamics in the way that classical longitudinal studies do – that has to await further waves in a planned panel study as well as further qualitative work – but they can illuminate aspects of the structural poverty closely linked to chronic poverty dynamics.

This poses interesting and challenging conceptual questions, for an attempt to engage with the structural dimensions of poverty and chronic poverty requires close attention to the complexity and diversity of the social dynamics and power relations that underpin it. The “livelihoods framework” (Chambers and Conway 1991, Scoones 1998) which is becoming increasingly hegemonic in scholarship on poverty, particularly within those traditions informed by British development economics, can make a contribution to this exploration, but by itself it is not enough. Closer to home, another set of limitations that needs to be questioned is the re-emergence in Southern African analyses of poverty of an unquestioned analytical liberalism. Both these traditions tend to depoliticise the study of poverty, underemphasising the persistence of racialised hierarchies and unequal social power relations within modern South African society.

This paper is thus also a call for a broadening of the conceptual and theoretical terrain of poverty studies: for an enlargement of what can be said about poverty, and specifically for a re-engagement with the complexities of antagonism, power, political economy and agency. In such an engagement, the theoretical traditions of critical sociology and anthropology provide the tools for exploring complex questions about the interrelations between poverty, power relations, vulnerability and agency.

  1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2004 SASA conference in Bloemfontein, 28 – 30 June. It is based on data collected in terms of a partnership between PLAAS and Chronic Poverty Research Centre. For more information about the research of the CPRC, see The underlying arguments about the nature of structural and chronic poverty were further developed with the support of a visiting researcher grant at the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town. Many intellectual debts have been incurred, particularly to Philippa Bevan, Thomas Cousins, Colleen Crawford- Cousins, Cobus de Swardt, Mickey Chopra, David Hulme, Uma Kothari, Jeremy Seekings and Gina Ziervogel.

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