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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

South Africa: Poverty Hearings

South Africa: Poverty Hearings
Date distributed (ymd): 981020
Document reposted by APIC

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: Southern Africa
Issue Areas: +economy/development+
Summary Contents:
This posting contains the Executive Summary of the first volume of a two-volume report on the Speak Out on Poverty Hearings held around South Africa between April and June 1998. The hearings were sponsored by the South African NGO Coalition (SANGOCO), the South African Council of Churches, and other organizations. The hearings gave hundreds of individuals and organizations an opportunity to describe their experiences of and responses to poverty.

The full report is published by SANGOCO. Volume 1 ("The People's Voices") is available at ZAR75 (US$15) each. Volume 2 ("Poverty and Human Rights") is available at ZAR50 (US$10) each. Orders from outside South Africa should add 50% for air mail postage. Orders should be sent to: SANGOCO, P O Box 31471, Braamfontein, 2017, South Africa (Tel: +27-11-403-7746/7; Fax: +27- 11-403-8703; E-mail:; Web: Orders can be invoiced on request.

+++++++++++++++++end profile++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

New on

Africa's Problems ... African Initiatives

Three key documents on Africa's crises in the 1990s:

  • African Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustment Programs for Socio-Economic Recovery and Transformation
  • African Charter for Popular Participation in Development and Transformation
  • The Kampala Document: Towards a Conference on Security, Stability, Development and Cooperation in Africa

Originally published by APIC in 1992; now available on-line.


Executive summary

If the question "What is poverty?" were posed to different groups of South Africans, in different parts of rural or urban South Africa, the responses would differ. The responses would also differ according to the gender, race, age, and other characteristics of respondents. Nevertheless, a central theme emerges: That poverty is not only about lack of money, but more centrally about a dearth of opportunities and choices which allow people to build decent lives for themselves.

Between 31 March and 19 June 1998 the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) and the South African NGO Coalition (SANGOCO) convened a series of ten hearings on poverty. Hearings were held in each of the nine provinces. Over 10 000 people participated in Speak Out on Poverty by attending the hearings, mobilising communities or making submissions. Nearly 600 people presented oral evidence over the 35 days of the hearings.

The piles of written testimony bore evidence to the fact that poverty is about dismal and ongoing drudgery, hunger and struggle. However, the testimonies also provided ample evidence of the ingenuity and creativity of people who survive against all odds.

While this report concentrates on current problems rather than those of the past, many stories made it clear that current problems were a result of past discrimination and disadvantage, and that there is still a long way to go before apartheid's distortions are straightened out. Some of those who spoke acknowledged the improvements which had come since 1994, but most spoke about ongoing poor service and delivery by government.

In the poorest provinces, the severity of poverty was clear when people spoke and wrote about lack of food.

Gender, disability and crime were not among the official themes around which the hearings were organised. Nevertheless, each merged repeatedly as factors increasing people's vulnerability to poverty and undermining their overall well- being.


Unemployment was the strongest theme in the hearings and was said to be particularly acute in rural areas. There were many stories of retrenchments from the mines as well as other workplaces. In some provinces there was strong evidence of antagonism to foreign immigrants, who were seen as taking the jobs of local people. It was clear that, to date, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy has been anything but successful in creating jobs.

The hearings included evidence from vulnerable workers such as fisherpeople, casual and seasonal workers, domestic workers, farm workers and those doing piece jobs, such as laundry, for neighbours. Despite poor wages and conditions, people were said to be reluctant to resign as they are desperate for even the smallest amount of money and know there are too many others willing to take their place.

Many people without waged jobs engaged in survivalist activities, either alone or in groups. In all provinces women, in particular, were organising in small groups to try to address their struggle to earn income collectively. However, both individual and group initiatives were often unsuccessful. Generally the areas of activity were very limited, leading to severe competition.

Operators were serving a market of poor people like themselves. Profitability was threatened by lack of access to credit, forcing people to buy extremely small quantities of raw materials or goods to sell. Lack of services such as electricity made for low productivity.

Youth faced particular difficulties in obtaining jobs because of their lack of experience, even where they had the formal education and training. In the informal sector, too, problems such as access to credit were exacerbated for youth. Young women are even more disadvantaged than their male counterparts. Many people spoke and wrote about young women selling their bodies in order to survive. Similarly many youth spoke about their engagement in crime to survive.

Land and rural development

Those who gave testimony in rural areas were clear about the importance of land for their survival. But speakers were also clear that land alone was not enough. In addition, they needed resources such as seeds, fertiliser, water; implements and tools with which to work the land.

There were repeated stories of how rural people had been dispossessed of their land, livestock and other possessions. In KwaZulu-Natal, there were many written stories describing how people had lost everything as a result of political violence. While many of the stories referred to the apartheid years and before, in 'white' commercial farming areas dispossession was still occurring. Further, in all the rural provinces there were repeated stories of abuses of rights of those living on farms by farmers, police and magistrates.

Those who had tried to access government land grants or put in claims for restitution complained of bureaucratic and other delays. People also complained that offices were inaccessible and far away. Those who had access to land, often lacked the resources to utilise it. Some had used up all their resources in acquiring the land.

Housing and urban development

The housing and urban development hearings, held in the Western Cape, bore testimony to the suffering caused by pass laws, but also those caused by the Group Areas Act and other spatial planning initiatives which served to separate white and black, and in particular, to ensure that black people lived far from the wealthy, economic centre. Numerous stories showed that poor black people continue to bear the costs of inequitable distribution of space, and of safe, secure and serviced dwellings.

Those who had accessed the government housing grants complained about the size of the grant, and about the size and quality of houses provided. They also told stories of developers delivering less than they had promised, charging more than agreed, and not completing their contracts according to specifications. Many also complained that while the grant had helped with the house, they were now unable -- because they were unemployed -- to pay for services.

In several provinces there were inspiring stories of how (mainly women) members of affiliates of the South African Homeless People's Federation had come together to save money, and ultimately build houses.


Inadequacies in relation to water featured prominently in virtually all the hearings, in both rural and peri-urban areas. There were some stories of delivery, but also accounts of problems with the new services -- such as breakdown of the infrastructure, or communal rather than on-site provision. Among those who had received services, there were many who complained that they were unable to afford the payments.

Submitters at almost every hearing spoke about the importance of water -- for the health of the family and for productive purposes.

Transport was the other service that emerged as a problem in many areas. Often the infrastructure itself was at fault. Poor roads restricted access to schooling, health facilities, shops and markets for goods. Where roads existed, transport was expensive.


Many people spoke about poverty-related illnesses such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. They spoke about the diseases caused by impure and inadequate water supplies. They spoke about the health problems caused by pollution from nearby mines and industries.

Several people noted the benefits of the newly established clinics in their areas. However, there were complaints about the infrequent visits of mobile clinics, the long queues at health facilities, and the inadequacies of the facilities in terms of lack of medication or even electricity and water. Several people spoke gratefully about the services provided by community health workers.


There were repeated stories of children not attending school on account of poverty. In some cases the children were excluded by the school because of non-payment of school fees. In others, children were out of school because there was no money for transport, clothing, food, examination fees, and so on. There were many reports of poor facilities and resources at schools. The situation was particularly bad in rural areas. In many of these areas there were no secondary schools nearby.

Several people spoke about the problems of those who failed the matric exam, but were prevented from repeating. Many parents and grandparents bemoaned the fact that their children had passed matric, yet were unable to find jobs and also unable to obtain funding for further studies.

Social security

In all provinces there were many, many people who spoke about the problems of state grants, and about the importance of this money to their household's survival. In Northern Province and Eastern Cape there were many reports of the devastation experienced by people whose grants had been stopped without warning. Many other people spoke about the cost of administrative and other difficulties they experienced in accessing grants.

Several people spoke about the importance of child support grants and noted concerns about the level and age limits of the new grant.

Many of the testimonies provided implicit evidence of the many people -- and households -- which fell between stools because children were too old for child support, while adults were not sufficiently disadvantaged for a disability grant and not old enough for the old age pension.


In the environmental hearings, there were stories of workplace illnesses and injuries leading to unemployment and death. In most cases there was little or no compensation. There were stories of workers remaining in what they knew to be harmful working situations because of the desperate need to provide -- at least in the short term -- for themselves and their families. There were also stories of how workplaces harmed neighbouring communities. In particular, people spoke about pollution of water and of air. And there were reports of the problems of people living on wetlands and dumps, and near a waste incinerator.

Government's contribution to poverty and poverty alleviation

In all provinces there were many stories of how people's expectations had been disappointed after promises from both government and non- government sources. There were also many stories where delivery had occurred, but had not been of the quality which people had expected.

Local government came in for the brunt of criticism. Councillors were said to be unavailable, and only interested in their own well-being. Several reports suggested that traditional authorities were a stumbling block to development in that they were refusing to sign the applications of local people for land, for a clinic, and so on.

Community mobilisation and action

In most areas there were inspiring stories of how people -- mainly women -- had come together in groups to engage in income-earning and other activities. Some of the self-help activities were successful and demonstrated the effectiveness of group solidarity and action. Many initiatives were failures. All too often, self-help activities were simply group engagement in survivalist and informal activities, and suffered from many of the same drawbacks.

Many of those who spoke at the hearings and who submitted written evidence had heard about them through their organisations (community or non- governmental) and had often been assisted to attend by them. These organisations had clearly given people a better idea of their rights, and had assisted them in trying to better their situation. The stories about the private sector were, on the other hand, very unflattering.


Recommendations emerging out of the hearings have been captured in a poverty commitment which people will be asked to sign and implement over the next year.


Those who organised the hearings hoped that they would provide the opportunity to hear what solutions poor people had to offer. Many who came forward provided concrete evidence of their solutions in describing their survival strategies. Often, however, they were clear that these solutions would not be successful without some outside assistance.

Many of the stories recorded showed great resourcefulness. But they also showed that resourcefulness is not enough. Many people clearly wanted to be independent. In a situation of extreme poverty, it is difficult, if not impossible, for people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps without an enabling environment. As Violet Nevhri of Elim in the Northern Province concluded her testimony: "We want to be taught and resourced to fish. We don't just want fish to eat."

Additional Sources

For an extensive (131K) analytical research report on Poverty and Inequality in South Africa, prepared for Deputy President Thabo Mbeki's office in May 1998, see the South African government web site

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC). APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa, by concentrating on providing accessible policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide range of groups and individuals.

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