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

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What Is Poverty: A qualitative reflection of people's experiences of poverty

Isobel Frye

National Labour and Economic Development Institute (NALEDI)

SARPN acknowledges NALEDI as the source of this document:
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South Africa is an upper middle income developing country with a population of approximately 44 million people. The country’s history since the arrival of the Dutch colonisers in 1652 has been characterised by successive policies aimed at the impoverishment and oppression of the majority of people in the country. With the discovery of gold and diamonds in the late nineteenth century, foreign capital swiftly availed itself to local commercial interests. The resultant riches were jealously guarded by a small elite minority, while the introduction of new laws to ensure an inexhaustible supply of cheap black labour laid the foundation for a complicated system of dispossession and alienation of black people from mainstream economic presence and activity. The new laws were also responsible for the rise of the Bantustans.

While formal political liberation was won against the discriminatory apartheid system of racial capitalism in 1994, by then the levels of poverty among black South Africans was already structurally entrenched. South Africa rated as one of the most unequal societies in the world, where the ongoing prosperity of the elite was predicated on the exclusion of the majority from the wealth generated by the nation. Dispossessed through legislation from being able to own property and having the right to run any business limited by regulation, the asset base of most black South Africans was and still is severely depleted. Employment soon became the only way in which most people could access income, but even access to education, skills and employment opportunities for black people in South Africa was restricted by state policies. As a result of this, a very tight alignment developed between race and class as societal cleavages in South Africa grew.

The legal exclusion of black people from the nascent processes of industrialisation was reinforced by strict laws regulating the movement and right of abode of the majority of black people who were relegated to reserves, named Bantustans or ‘homelands’ throughout South Africa. From these reserves, people would be afforded the right of movement to the rest of South Africa, and especially the industrialising hubs, only in the form of necessary labour. Depending on the level of ‘independence’ of the various Bantustans, inhabitants could lose their South African citizenship. In any event, denied a formal vote by the apartheid government, the majority of South Africans had no formal political voice, and it became possible for the former government to dismiss the issues and pressures arising from poverty for black people as constituting Bantustan issues. Poverty among white South Africans however did receive a fair amount of attention, as covered in the First and Second Carnegie Commissions into Poverty.

When the ANC government won a landslide victory in the 1994 elections, they were faced with a highly unequal and divided society, and an economy that had been isolated by most of the international community in protest against the apartheid government. While keen to begin a process of reconstruction and development, government soon realised that access to the levels of investment necessary to fund programmes of reconstruction was conditional on the local and international business community being reassured that the liberation government would not succumb to populist programmes of redistributing the wealth of the nation.

The aim of eradicating poverty was, however, clear. In 1996, a ‘War on Poverty’ was declared in a national initiative headed by then State President Nelson Mandela. Civil society played a significant role in this campaign, and from these roots came the national ‘Speak out on Poverty’ hearings. These hearings were informed by the desire to enable people to speak about their suffering and the impact of apartheid discrimination on their lives in a way similar to the Truth and Reconciliation process. It was an avenue for people to articulate the injustices that had, among other things, robbed them of their voice in national discourse.

Nationally there was an appreciation of the lack of knowledge and information about the nature and extent of poverty, levels of poverty, its geographic spread as well as the resultant impact on equality and inequality. To address this, a number of baseline studies were undertaken during this period, including the 1995 Key Indicators of Poverty in South Africa Study, which was a quantitative analysis of the Project for Statistics on Living Standards and Development for the Reconstruction and Development Ministry, as well as the Poverty and Inequality Report and the South African Participative Poverty Assessment Study (Magasela, 2005). In addition to trying to understand the depth and impact of poverty, these studies emphasised the need to include the voices of people living in poverty in any study about them (PPA-SA, 1998).

With the adoption of government’s Growth, Employment and Reconstruction programme (GEAR) from 1996, this focus on the poor and the inclusion of their stories and their contribution to the dilemma of solving poverty, grew silent. The development emphasis shifted from the previous rights-based focus grounded in the highly progressive South African Constitution1, to technocratic questions of economics, numbers and targets. Within government a prevailing sentiment developed that poverty would inevitably be addressed through the attainment economic growth. The classical neoliberal trickledown approach to poverty eradication became the dominant policy approach under GEAR, and the RDP office and ministry were closed.

Since 2000, the earlier austere fiscal policies of GEAR began to show a slight relaxation. However, this mildly expansionary increase in national spending has still not been accompanied by a comprehensive statement of poverty eradication policies, objectives and goals.

While there is general consensus among South Africans that government is committed to addressing poverty, there is dismay that nothing seems to be really working to turn poverty and inequality and the resultant social and economic exclusion around. While people may anticipate that they might benefit from short-term alleviation programmes (such as targeted social grants or Expanded Public Works Programmes), there is concern about what will happen after this programme is completed, as well as what will happen to household and community members who do not qualify for the targeted assistance programmes.

People are also aware of the message from government that they should not wait for handouts, but should instead be actively developing their own livelihoods by starting small businesses etc. Yet the obstacles that people face in this regard often appear insurmountable, whether these manifest as disruptions by local government officials, lack of credit or lack of markets. Many of these frustrations became clear during the Focus Groups held in this project. While government holds imibizos, during which ministers and government officials visit communities and listen to their issues, providing a valuable forum at which people can be heard, and can feel that government is listening to their voices, these fora are not a structured system of feedback and accountability, nor do they give links to local development programmes or opportunities.

Alcock (2006), a British writer, writes that “(T)he history of poverty therefore reveals the complex interaction of academic research, political debate and policy development…”. The above illustrates that this is equally true of how poverty discourse has been developed in South Africa. What is missing from this equation is the voice of those who live in and experience the dynamics of poverty on a daily basis. Only in this way can one ascertain the extent to which structural attempts to eradicate poverty interact with questions of agency, be it self-agency or agency on a community-wide level, and what obstacles exist that frustrate such agency.

Poverty eradication policies almost always carry with them the potential to be politically divisive. According to Alcock:

“The identification of poverty is linked to political action to eliminate it: thus if poverty remains then perhaps it is because politicians have failed either to identify it accurately or to develop appropriate policies in response to it.”

How poverty is defined and measured and to what extent policies are seen to be effective in its eradication will have different resonances for people across the political spectrum. It is accordingly critical that the experiences and voices of people living in poverty are heard in the necessary policy deliberations, and this is too often the voice that is not heard.

Arising out of this perceived lack, NALEDI developed the vision for this current project, which entailed qualitative research to hear from people living in a poor community how their lives are affected by poverty, how they define poverty, what their sources of income are, how they have benefited from government poverty-eradication programmes, and vitally, what initiatives would assist them in addressing their vulnerabilities and eventually, in moving out of poverty.

The study was premised on a number of key assumptions about poverty and the effects of chronic (long-term) poverty on people’s lives. The first assumption is that poverty in South Africa is structural in nature rather than being caused by individual laziness or lack of agency or self-initiative. Poverty is the result of the unequal distribution of resources, skills and income sources, and is exacerbated in many cases by both gender and spatial dynamics. The second assumption is that social grant income represents the single source of regular income in many poor households. The third assumption is that despite this, poor people in general have not developed a ‘dependency’ on social grant money, but continue to try to generate income from other sources, and through this study we wished to try to identify a number of the activities undertaken in this regard.

Given the seminal quantitative study undertaken by the Economic Policy and Research Institute (EPRI) discussed in the next section, it was agreed to target households that received some form of social grant to try to understand further the dynamics around grants, both social and economic at a household and community level, and then to test these against a small control group of households that did not receive grants.

  1. The final Constitution of South Africa (Act 106 of 1996) was formally adopted in 1996.

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