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A Reflection On Poverty And Inequality In South Africa

It takes a statistical report to show us that all is not well in South Africa. 

11/10/2017 03:57 SAST | Updated 11/10/2017 03:57 SAST
Tadeu Andre/ AFP/ Getty Images

On August 22 2017, Statistician-General Pali Lehola launched a sobering report on Statistics South Africa examining poverty trends in the country between 2006 and 2015. The statistics indicate a sharp increase in poverty, using all three of the lines used in South Africa: the food, lower and upper bound poverty lines.

The Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII) has always protested against the level of the three poverty lines since their adoption in 2012, compared with other studies that consider the cost of a decent standard of living, such as that published monthly by the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action (PACSA).

The three poverty lines in 2015 were the food poverty line, the absolute basic survivalist sum needed for a person to afford the minimal food to keep them alive per month, of R441 per person per month; the lower bound poverty line of R647 per person per month; and the upper bound poverty level of R992 per person per month.

According to the report, in 2015, 55.5 percent of people lived in poverty below R992 per month. One in four people lived below the survivalist food poverty line of R441. In other words, living with chronic hunger.

The implications of these statistics are shocking. What they suggest is that in this upper-middle income country that boasts one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world, it takes a statistical report to show us that all is not well in South Africa.

Poverty appears to have become a cancer that we ignore and turn away from. Driving through Johannesburg city is a daily illustration of many, many people desperately striving or hustling to make sufficient money to survive.

If we continue to ignore the anger and frustration on the faces of people protesting against their living conditions, we have lost our humanity.

Living conditions for people who cannot afford to commute are vile and inhumane, as exposures of inner-city slums show. Red ant evictions aggravate the conditions of people, and there appears to be no clear leadership to arrest and address these conditions in a progressive medium to long-term rationale plan with immediate steps that can be taken to ameliorate conditions. For people living in eviscerated informal settlements and rural areas, conditions are often even worse.

Inequality, especially along racial and gender lines, is always reported on in the poverty trends report.

The 2015 average annual household income for a household headed by a white person was R350,937, which was five times more than that of a household headed by a black person at R67,828. Again, average expenditure by households headed by a man in 2015 was R121,363, while that of a household headed by a woman was R77,671.

In addition, the average size of poor households was 4.6 people while that of a non-poor person was 2.4 people, so the household expenditure set out above is diluted much further among poor households.

Households in the poorest 20 percent of households in 2015 had an average annual expenditure of R23,211, which had dropped in real terms since 2011, from R25,092. Annual household expenditure for the richest 20 percent of households increased in real terms to R312,322 from R242,493.

Redistribution, it appears, is going the wrong way. In closing, however, I think we need to need to ask: Why is poverty growing in South Africa? We have a National Development Plan that aims to eradicate the occurrence of people living below the food poverty line by 2030. Since 2011, we have reversed previous gains.

If we continue to ignore the implications, we are in serious trouble. If we continue to ignore the anger and frustration on the faces of people protesting against their living conditions, we have lost our humanity.

Isobel Frye is the director of the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute.