Julian May, ed. Poverty and Inequality in South Africa: Meeting the Challenge. New York: Zed Books, 2000. XIV + 304 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-85649-807-4.
Reviewed by Phia Steyn (Department of History, University of the Orange Free State)
Published on H-SAfrica (March, 2001)
Plenty Amidst Poverty
Plenty Amidst Poverty
The World Development Report (published in 1990) focused renewed attention on poverty assessment in developing countries. Similar studies followed suit in South Africa, the first being a collaborative survey undertaken in 1993 by the Southern African Labour and Developing Research Unit and the World Bank. The scope of poverty assessment in South Africa was broadened considerably in October 1995 when the South African cabinet agreed that a Poverty and Inequality Report (PIR) be undertaken by South African researchers. The report was published in 1998 and, according to Pundy Pillay, it "represents the most comprehensive documentation and analysis of poverty and inequality that has been undertaken in South Africa since the University of Cape Town-led Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty in 1984" (ix).
The PIR process in South Africa differed from poverty assessments elsewhere in the world in that all the research was undertaken by South Africans, and the scope of the report was broadened to include a wide-range of issues that are relevant to poverty and inequality but which do not normally find their way into poverty profiles. The PIR was further strongly influenced and structured by the South African Participatory Poverty Assessment, a document that elsewhere in the world is published separately.
The book currently under review represents a synthesis of the findings of the PIR. Thirteen authors, under the editorship of Julian May, address a variety of poverty and inequality-related issues by focussing on the current patterns of poverty and inequality; the financial, human and other resources committed to these problems by the national government; the institutional, administrative and resource constraints on government and non-governmental organisations; and, how past, current and planned policies will serve to improve or exacerbate the overall situation.
A central question of the book is who are the South African poor. The PIR found that just under fifty percent of the South African population (about nineteen million people) live in the poorest forty percent of households (i.e. households that expend less that R352.53 per adult equivalent). The ultra-poor comprises twenty seven percent of the population (about ten million people) who live in the poorest twenty percent of the households (i.e. households that expend less than R193.77 per adult equivalent).
Racial and spatial factors impact strongly on the occurrence of poverty and inequality in South Africa. A direct result of the favouritism of white people during the apartheid era is the fact that since 1994 white households are still in general in a better position that coloured, Indian, and black households. Depending on the poverty measure chosen, black households account for between twenty nine percent and forty nine percent of overall poverty and inequality in the country, with the most vulnerable groups being black women, children and the elderly. The majority of poor in South Africa reside in rural areas, which accounts for 71.6 percent of the country's poor in contrast to the 28.4 percent of urban poor. Regional disparities also exist between the nine provinces with Gauteng and the Western Cape having the lowest levels of poverty and inequality, while the majority of the population in provinces such as the Eastern Cape and the Northern Province are classified as poor.
A major focus of the book is what the African National Congress government has done since 1994 to alleviate poverty and inequality. The PIR identifies a plethora of programmes initiated since 1994 that prove the national government are committed to poverty reduction and a more egalitarian distribution of wealth. However, progress on both national and local levels has been hampered by a number of factors such as: the lack of institutional capacity and the lack of money to expand in this area; the existence of deficiencies between the provinces in the quality and distribution of services such as education, health and the provision of basic services; some development-related projects are underfunded, under-resourced, lack capacity and clout; the government have many grand policies but have experienced real problems in moving from planning to proper implementation; and, constraints placed on development programmes and initiatives by the government's commitment to the reduction of the budget deficit. The PIR further criticises the reduction and reallocation of international donor funding to non-governmental and community-based organisations, many of which are directly involved in fighting poverty and inequality on a local level.
Poverty and Inequality in South Africa: Meeting the Challenge is an extremely valuable resource for any person conducting research into socio-economic aspects of post-apartheid South African society. Though it will no doubt be used primarily by the academic and non-governmental sector, its treatment of current and planned governmental policies and their implications in the alleviation of poverty and inequality, makes this book an extremely important resource for politicians and government officials involved in policy planning and implementation in South Africa. The wealth of statisticsand information on poverty-related policy development and implementation makes this book a standard reference and a very good starting point for any new research.
An interesting aspect of the book is the general lack of apartheid-bashing that has become popular in some circles in the post-apartheid era. This can only be taken as an indication that the authors were serious about trying to understand the various aspects of poverty and inequality currently found in South Africa and were not out just to find a culprit for the situation. To conclude, the diverse focus of this book makes it accessible and useful to academics in a wide variety of disciplines. On the downside, it was found that the diverse focus meant that some chapters made a very boring read for those not interested in some of the issues.
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Phia Steyn. Review of May, Julian, ed., Poverty and Inequality in South Africa: Meeting the Challenge.
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