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  • Framing poverty and inequality studies in South Africa
  • Sarah Mosoetsa (bio) and David Francis (bio)

South Africa has a long tradition of excellent research on poverty, emerging early in the twentieth century and continuing into the post-apartheid period, and poverty in South Africa has been well documented (Bhorat et al 2006, du Toit 2012, Finn and Leibbrandt 2017, Seekings and Nattrass 2015, Statistics South Africa 2017, Sulla and Zikhali 2018, Wilson and Ramphele 1994). More recently, the rise of inequality studies as a research field in its own right raises interesting questions about the important similarities and differences between poverty and inequality, and what this means for how we understand and research them (Soudien et al 2019).

Poverty is often understood as the inability of individuals to meet their basic needs such as for food, shelter, housing, education, sanitation and healthcare. Amartya Sen's (1993) pioneering work on poverty uses the term 'deprivation of basic capabilities' to describe absolute poverty beyond basic needs, in working towards a holistic, quality-of-lifeexperience understanding of poverty. Levels of poverty – that is, capabilities, basic needs and resources – often differ in a community or country, and between countries, based on how these are distributed, such distribution often being shaped by gender, race, class and geographical location. Inequality, as distinct from poverty, is then the disparity in the distribution of resources, needs, income, capabilities and opportunities within a given population, and these disparities are structured by power relations. [End Page 1]

Therefore, what is understood as poverty is a condition of lack (in absolute terms) (Soudien et al 2019), while inequality is relational. Nevertheless, the two are often the product of the same socio-economic forces. Inequality is not only about differences between individuals, groups or regions; differences are determined or chosen, but inequalities are socially constructed (Therborn 2013), and the study of inequality is about understanding the conditions that allow certain groups to dominate over others (Mohanty 2018).

Studies of poverty and inequality as a global phenomenon have in recent times generated much focused scholarship and policy work across the globe. International scholars have described and analysed inequality as a global phenomenon in which power and wealth are increasingly concentrated in elite groups and transnational corporations (Piketty 2014, Standing 2014, Therborn 2013). Countries are also grappling with the social and economic fallout from sustained and increasing levels of poverty and inequality (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009). But the universality and pervasiveness of the problems can obscure the fact that their causes, persistence and linkages may be very different around the world. In South Africa, inequality studies is a relatively recent field, founded on the work of Terreblanche, Nattrass and Seekings (Nattrass and Seekings 2019, Seekings and Nattrass 2005, 2015, Terreblanche 2002), and where it has cohered as a field of study, this has been largely within development studies (Webster et al forthcoming).

The development of inequality studies has over the past few years also been accompanied by empirical evidence that since the end of apartheid South Africa has made sustained progress in addressing poverty (Finn and Leibbrandt 2017). By contrast, levels of inequality, as measured by income, have remained persistently high (Sulla and Zikhali 2018). The challenge in South Africa, therefore, is declining levels of absolute poverty with rising levels of inequality. While 'pro-poor policies' have been able to reduce poverty levels in the country, inequality has deepened. This has important implications for how we think about policies to address poverty and inequality. As Leibbrandt et al (2011:15) remark, 'tackling inequality is more complicated and politically contentious than tackling poverty, as the former implies a "rearrangement" of the positions of the poor and the rich in the income distribution whereas the latter only involves the socio-economic conditions of the poor'.

South Africa has distinct history of land dispossession, and racial and [End Page 2] gendered labour market discrimination, and specific attempts to redress the injustices and inequalities of the past through various programmes, 'pro-poor policies' and legislation. Careful empirical and case-study work is therefore required to enable us to better understand the causes and dynamics of poverty and inequality. Furthermore, it is important that such work transcends academic disciplinary...


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