Research & Innovation 2015-16 - Page 30

South Africa: who gets what – and why
Poverty in contemporary South Africa is both extensive and modest at the
same time. It is extensive in that the ‘poverty headcount’ – the proportion of the
population living in poverty – is higher than in other middle-income countries
with similar levels of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. At the same
time, the ‘poverty gap’ – the difference between the incomes of the poor and
the poverty line – is small in relation to the total income in society.
This means that the redistribution of a small amount
from the rich to the poor could eliminate poverty.
Indeed, the poverty gap is small by comparison with the
increase in GDP per capita since the end of apartheid:
the additional resources available through economic
growth could have been used to eliminate poverty
without any reduction in the standard of living of the
In a democracy, one might expect that political pressure
from the large number of poor and almost-poor people
would ensure that the benefits of economic growth
would be directed towards the relief of poverty, whether
directly or indirectly.
The available data suggest that poverty did decline in
the 2000s, primarily because of the expansion of cash
transfer programmes such as the Child Support Grant.
Public-housing programmes and the massive rollout
of antiretroviral drugs also resulted in an improved
quality of life that is not reflected in the data on income
poverty. But widespread poverty has persisted. Most
of the gains of economic growth have accrued to the
non-poor, and redistribution to the poor has not come
close to eliminating poverty.
Role of policy in reproducing poverty
In our new book, Policy, Politics and Poverty in South
Africa (published in the UK in 2015, and to be published
in South Africa by Jacana in 2016), we examine how
and why poverty has persisted, focusing on the ways
in which public policies serve to reproduce as well as
mitigate poverty. The book comprises three sets of
chapters. The first set considers who have been the
‘winners’ and who the ‘losers’ as a result of economic
growth and change since the end of apartheid. We
show that the ranks of winners include not only the
rich, or upper and middle classes, but most households
with members in formal employment. In real terms (i.e.
taking inflation into account), wages for almost all of
the formally employed have probably risen: albeit, often,

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