Rising to the challenge: tackling poverty and inequality

Cape Town housing protest courtesy Pierre F. Lombard/Wikimedia Commons/CC

By Francis Wilson

More than 30 years ago, in the 1980s, South African researchers undertook a major study into the nature and extent of poverty in South Africa. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, this comprehensive research programme was known as the Second Carnegie Inquiry Into Poverty and Development in South Africa. The first Carnegie inquiry took place two generations previously with a focus on poor whites pushed off the land by the upheavals of the South African war and the tribulations of urbanisation.

By the time of the second Carnegie inquiry, the focus was largely on black poverty and the need to document its various manifestations in both rural and urban areas. But more than simply the manifestations of poverty. It was necessary to find ways – through imaginative writing and photographs – to convey what “being poor” meant to those who had to endure it.

But the second Carnegie Inquiry report was published whilst Nelson Mandela was still in jail and before black political activity was unbanned; so the focus of the report tended to be history, description and analysis rather than recommendations for political action – although such policies were not completely ignored.

After 1994 and the assumption of power by the new democratic government, the need for comprehensive, cohesive and effective policies against poverty and inequality became one of the county’s highest priorities. But despite explicit policies such as the Reconstruction and Development Programme; despite millions of dollars of expenditure; despite billions of words focused on the topic – the results did not measure effort nor expectations.

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