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Poverty and Social Policy


Poverty is an issue of enduring concern across much of South, Southern Africa, and the Global South generally. Far from being a transitory phenomenon, poverty in the Southern African context has a strongly structural character: poverty rates tend to be persistently high, and there are large populations of people locked into chronic poverty with little opportunities for social mobility or escape. These aspects of poverty are closely linked to deeply entrenched forms of economic and social inequality. In South Africa (and increasingly in other parts of Southern Africa) these forms of poverty are closely connected to landlessness. While in other parts of the world de-agrarianisation can be linked to pathways out of poverty, as migrants gain access to non-farm employment in the urban formal or informal sector, de-agrarianisation in South Africa is ‘jobless’ in nature: large numbers of people are being pushed off the land (not only by the racist legislation of the past, but also by market forces) but fail to find an economic foothold in the non-farm economy.

These dynamics create huge challenges for pro-poor policy. Despite widespread agreement on the need to address and eliminate poverty and inequality, dominant models for understanding and addressing poverty (both on the neoliberal right and on the social democratic left) are inadequate to the challenges posed by the deep forms of structural marginalisation created by jobless de-agrarianisation. Many policies aimed at reducing poverty and creating opportunities for growth have had paradoxical or unintended consequences, sometimes deepening the divides that separate urban and formal ‘insiders’ from rural and informal outsiders.

PLAAS Poverty Research

PLAAS research has long been concerned with understanding the causes, drivers, and consequences of poverty and inequality in South Africa.  PLAAS research on poverty and inequality is underpinned by the belief that they cannot be adequately understood without engaging with their structural aspects and determinants. This includes the linkages between the perpetuation of poverty and inequality, and the larger nature and structure of economic growth.   Much PLAAS work therefore aims to understand and advocate for inclusive and broad-based economic growth.

PLAAS research has generally been less concerned with directly measuring poverty (i.e. large scale, quantitative enquiry) than detailed examination of specific aspects of poverty, inequality and vulnerability.  These have included: questions surrounding the definition and measurement of poverty and inequality, approaches to addressing vulnerability, social protection (viz. social welfare) grants, and ‘informal sector’ employment and self-employment.

Moreover poverty, inequality and vulnerability are implicit ‘cross-cutting’ themes in much PLAAS research, across a range of other domains or sectors, ranging from land, agriculture, fisheries and natural resource management.

Finally, PLAAS situates its research on poverty, inequality and vulnerability in a broader commitment to ‘public sociology’. It aims to strike a balance between scholarly publication, policy advice to government and donor agencies, and intervention in public debates and public education about the causes and dynamics of poverty

Featured Publications

May 13, 2019 in Poverty Publication

David Neves et al (2016) The use and effectiveness of social grants in South Africa (Finmark Trust Report).

This report examines the effectiveness of social grants in South Africa, and how recipients use their grants. As a form of social protection, social grants not only ameliorate poverty and provide a safety net, they also potentially promote social transformation. The main report pulls together a number of aspects. First it reviews the scholarly literature on social grants, examining both…
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May 13, 2019 in Poverty Publication

David Neves (2017). Reconsidering rural development: Using livelihood analysis to examine rural development in the former homelands of South Africa. (PLAAS Research Report 54).

‘Rural development’ as concept and focus of public policy is comparatively new, having emerged in the post-war period. Much of the impetus for ‘rural development’ arose in the context of newly decolonised, low-income countries, where particularly development economists mooted the ability of the smallscale and subsistence agricultural sector to proactively contribute to national economic development. Early efforts to promote rural…
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April 30, 2019 in Poverty Publication

Andries du Toit (2019).The Vampire Squid: Value, Crisis and the Power of Finance (Review essay for Development and Change)

Financialisation -- the increasing influence of financial institutions and the creation of financial value in the ordering of social relation -- has been one of the most important dynamics in the seemingly irresistible rise of neoliberal government in world affairs ever since the late 1970s.  The destructive implications of these developments have been increasingly evident in recent years, especially after…
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April 26, 2019 in Poverty Publication

Andries du Toit (2018). Without the Blanket of the Land agrarian change and biopolitics in post–Apartheid South Africa. (JPS 45:5-6).

This paper connects Marxist approaches to the agrarian political economy of South Africa with post-Marshallian and Foucauldian analyses of distributional regimes and late capitalist governmentality. Looking at South Africa’s stalled agrarian transition through the lens of biopolitics as well as class analysis can make visible otherwise disregarded connections between processes of agrarian change and broader contests about the terms of…
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Current Projects

  • Inappropriate financial practices, reckless lending, and indebtedness amongst social grant recipients in South Africa: A project funded by the LSE Knowledge, Exchange and Impact Fund investigating the implications of financial inclusion in the context of South Africa’s cash transfer programmes. This project is being  led by the Black Sash, in collaboration with  Prof Deborah James of the London School of Economics,  Erin Torkelson of the  University of California, Berkeley, and   David Neves from PLAAS.
  • Neoliberal biopolitics and political community in post-Apartheid South Africa:  de-agrarianization and the government of poverty.   This project, which is led by Andries du Toit,  explores the implications for the post-Apartheid project of universal biopolitical inclusion of the forms of deep economic marginalisation and segmentation that characterise the South African distributive regime.  For more details see Prof du Toit’s website.


Prof Andries du Toit

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Cyriaque Hakizimana

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