How can we act on inequalities in South Africa?

Image: ACEIR director Prof. Murray Leibbrandt addresses participants at the stakeholder engagement. Photo: ACEIR via Twitter.

The release of the Inequality Trends in South Africa report in November 2019 made the headlines for all of the obvious reasons: the country remains stifled by enormous inequality challenges that cut across multiple domains of well-being, and that (predictably) those most affected are Black Africans, women, and people in rural areas. The question of what strategies and interventions can help to address this situation was tackled earlier this month at a multi-sectoral stakeholder engagement hosted by SALDRU, Statistics South Africa and the Agence Francaise de Developpement (AFD) under the banner of the African Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research (ACEIR).

Gathering for the meeting in one of Cape Town’s largest townships, the Philippi landscape that sporadically met the gaze of participants throughout the day was one that millions in South Africa call home: rows and rows of simple, tiny homes built during the apartheid years alongside home-made shacks tightly squeezed in wherever there is space; toddlers playing outside on the pavement, dodging pools of waste water and speeding mini-bus taxis; and women and men clustered around informal trading spaces or basic services points such as taps and shared mobile toilets.

The event, held at the Solutions Space campus of the UCT Graduate School of Business, brought together about 60 participants from various sectors: SALDRU, Statistics South Africa and AFD researchers who were involved in the production of the inequality trends report; national and local government representatives; civil society organisations and international development agencies.

In attendance were also several European Union ambassadors, while the highest office in the country was represented by the Deputy Director-General in the Presidency, Busani Ngcaweni; alongside Rudi Dicks, the Head of the Projects Management Office in the Presidency. Also participating in the programme were two members of the President’s Economic Advisory Council, Mzukisi Qobo from the Wits Business School, and development economist, Ayabonga Cawe.

The day’s deliberations pointed to the need for a set of complementary measures across different sectors to address the intersecting inequalities that are holding back human and economic development in South Africa.

The capacity and the necessary skill sets within government – at all three tiers – to deliver on policy mandates were deemed critical, however. Dicks pointed out that the capacity of the state requires a combination of skills and attitudes, while Cawe indicated that how frontline government staff were used was essential to maximise government’s capacity.

Target the most affected
It is predicted that, by 2030, Cape Town will be a city largely constituted of informal settlements, according to Adrian Stone from the City of Cape Town. Therefore, understanding the energy needs and uses of these residents was crucial: “a mind shift that poor people are deserving of energy”. Speakers’ inputs illustrated that it would be worth applying such an attitude to all services and other socio-economic enablers, and with keeping the most affected top of mind.

Females are one segment of the population most burdened by inequalities – and Black African women in rural areas likely to be the most affected.

But, “what is talked about and what is financed are not speaking to the needs of Black women and their families”, Lungile Mashele of the Development Bank of Southern Africa told delegates during her input on the energy sector. She highlighted the need for energy sources that can provide the necessary capacity to power the economy – something which she says solar energy will not be able to sustain.

Weighing in on the gendered nature of South African inequalities were the Head of the UN Women South Africa Flagship Programme on Women’s Entrepreneurship in Gender Responsive Procurement, Ayanda Mvimbi, and Colleen Lowe Morna, Executive Director of Gender Links. They both stressed the need to focus on women’s economic participation and investment in women-owned enterprises and to address discriminating gender norms that do not value unpaid work relating to providing care to families and communities.

An important development in this regard, announced by Basani Baloyi, the Oxfam South Africa Fellow on Research and Policy, is a forthcoming Oxfam report on inequality that explores the role of women in the context of work and how economic structures reinforce labour market and gender inequalities across race, class and gender.

Baloyi told delegates that South Africa’s chief executive officers are amongst the highest paid in the world. For this reason, Oxfam is launching a “Paid Up” campaign that will use section 27 of the Employment Equity Act to mobilise for closing the pay gap between top and bottom earners and to foreground the myriad of challenges facing informal traders specifically.

Addressing the vertical employment gap, Cawe said that better scrutiny of data on employment equity and a compact between investors, the private sector and the public, are needed.

Given the clear gender bias of inequality, the Director for Socio-economic Policy at National Treasury, Sibusiso Gumbi, proposed structuring gender-based budgeting across government departments.


Due to South Africa’s legacy of racialised segregation, addressing spatial inequality could lessen the burden on those living in less developed and accessible areas of the country.

For example, a focus on peri-urban areas that are developing, roads that link rural with urban areas, and attention to other ways of rural development would assist greatly in addressing inequality, suggested Qobo.

Again, keeping the needs of the most affected in mind means realising that shopping malls in marginalised areas can be inaccessible to those without transport and sideline small- and medium-sized businesses, according to Stacy-Lee Joseph of the South African Cities Network. She added that development along travel routes, maintenance and infrastructure investment, and use of data to integrate different systems and resources can assist greatly.

Collaboration and the way forward

Numerous speakers and participants emphasised that partnerships, coalitions and social compacts are needed to break the back of South African inequalities.

While multi-sectoral gatherings like this one can yield potential partnerships, according to Baloyi, there were promising initiatives underway to help facilitate partnerships in the interest of national priorities. One example was the Presidential Youth Employment Initiative that was launched the day after the Philippi gathering. Located in the Projects Management Office of the Presidency, Dicks explained that this initiative will bring partners together to help youth to overcome constraints to access to work, and acquire the right skills, services and other enablers such as drivers’ licences.

But there was also a need to develop the discourse on inequality in South Africa, emphasised Cawe. That would require making the connections between the high-level data in the report and people’s lived experiences, and building popular awareness and support through public debates and discussions involving the sectors not only represented at Phillipi, but also labour unions and large civil society movements. Another critical group in such dialogues, suggested a representative of the Actuarial Society of South Africa, were the top earners who should understand that they can – and should – do more. In this regard, the value that actuaries can bring to the table is not only to analyse data, but also to explore how such data can be translated to illustrate future benefits to the country. Nwabisa Dyantyis, a Deputy Director in the Department of Human Settlements added that the “not in my backyard” mentality among better-off communities needs to be engaged and challenged as well.

In his closing remarks, Prof. Murray Leibbrandt, director of SALDRU and ACEIR, made a passionate appeal to participants to find ways to use the evidence presented to make better policy decisions and curb inequality across its different dimensions: “We need to move from theory to action”, he said, “and that will require greater collaboration between our respective sectors.”

A report on the gathering will be made available in due course. To receive a notification, subscribe to the ACEIR mailing list.