Poverty and inequality dynamics in South Africa: Post-apartheid developments in the light of the long-run legacy

Type Working Paper
Title Poverty and inequality dynamics in South Africa: Post-apartheid developments in the light of the long-run legacy
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2009
URL http://www.ipc-undp.org/conference/ems/papers/ENG/Leibbrandt_Woolard_Woolard_ENG.pdf
South Africa has a long and infamous history of high inequality with an overbearing racial
footprint to this inequality. Many have seen the emergence and persistence of this inequality to
be the major unifying theme of the country’s twentieth century economic history. Certainly, this
is the key context to understanding why the issue of inequality has continued to dominate the
post-apartheid landscape. There are two indicators of the post-apartheid political economy that
have attracted special attention in this regard. The first is whether the evolving character of the
post-apartheid economy and the policy efforts of the post-apartheid government have been able
to start to lower these very high aggregate levels of inequality. Then, there is the related question
of the composition of this inequality; specifically, whether the blunt racial footprint undergirding
this inequality would start to grey and be replaced by new social strata and more subtle socioeconomic
Historically, the profiling and measurement of poverty have formed sub-themes of this broader
inequality discussion. Under apartheid and even earlier the relegation of the majority of the
population in non-white racial groups to the bottom of the income and wealth distributions in the
country cleanly mapped onto their total dominance of poverty incidence and shares from at least
the 1940s onwards. Showing this to be the case and illuminating clearly the poverty inducing
features of apartheid policies were central tasks of many social scientists. While such evidence
was widely aired in the international anti-apartheid circles, at best there was only grudging
acceptance internally.
The next section of this paper describes inequality and poverty trends in South Africa over the
long-run. Census data provides the primary data for such comparisons. The focus is on aggregate
indicators and also on racial shares. One other dimension is worthy of mention. The very name
apartheid indicates the importance of race-based geography and race-based policy. Although
formal policies of spatial separation by race are long gone, a lingering legacy remains in the
contemporary prominence: the rural-urban marker of inequality and poverty. From a policy point
of view the inheritance of huge group of poorly endowed and marginalized rural poor has greatly
increased the difficulty and the costs of post-apartheid social delivery and effective poverty

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