From Poverty to Power in South Africa

South African edition of From Poverty to Power, published by Jacana Media with a nice foreword from Francis Wilson, an authority on poverty and labour markets in SA who also chaired the launch event at the Book Lounge in Cape Town. Jacana put on a great programme of public events, university lectures and got some good radio and TV coverage. The highlight was probably the launch in East London, a recession hit town in the Eastern Cape whose economy depends heavily on the local Mercedez Benz factory (which like auto firms everywhere is seeing its sales slump and is laying off workers). The launch was organized by the Daily Dispatch, the East London newspaper formerly edited by Donald Woods of Cry Freedom fame, and it pulled 250-300 people into the Guild Theatre – everyone from high school classes to grizzled survivors of the armed struggle against apartheid. It felt fitting that East London should overtake the launches in Washington or London as the biggest launch event thus far – here people weren’t talking about ‘development’, but about their own lives and futures. Conversations and questions in East London and the other launch events revealed a palpable sense of disillusion and concern over corruption among political leaders and officials, fear for the future, and heart-searching over how to change public attitudes and values. Doesn’t human nature inevitably lead to greed and unfairness? How can we ensure that an active citizenry is not promptly coopted or crushed by political parties? Do political leaders inevitably betray their followers? Is gradual change possible, or is radical upheaval the only way? Elections are due on 22 April, but I didn’t detect much excitement at the prospect. Flying into East London brought home the grotesque inequalities that persist here – suburbs of comfortable, largely white homes with pickups and swimming pools, interspersed with the most deprived of shanty towns. It’s getting on for two decades since Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, but economic apartheid is still alive and well in the parallel universes of black and white, apart from the elevation of a small black middle class via the black empowerment affirmative action programme. It’s like one of those posh café lattes in a glass, with a layer of milk sitting atop a layer of coffee, and only the faintest of intermingling between them. That and the ubiquitous fear of crime that leaves you feeling trapped and cooped up behind a series of heavy duty security gates and ‘armed response’ signs got to me – I was relieved to board the plane to Zambia yesterday. Most startling statistic? UNISA, an Africa-wide distance learning, Open University style institution in a monstrous Orwellian building just outside Pretoria, signed up 11,800 development studies students this year. If I could just get FP2P adopted as their course text…….]]>

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


9 Responses to “From Poverty to Power in South Africa”
  1. Riana

    Duncan, I met you briefly in SA in 2007. I have a lot of respect for the work you have done and I am one of the biggest fans of your blog. I did however read something today that made me wonder how thorough your research actually is. As of now, there are probably more blacks driving 4x4s than whites. There is not just a few middle class blacks, but quite a large group. And at the same time there is a large and growing group of white people that live on the streets and off charity because they cannot find jobs. I will try and find some links to this information for you to read, but for now I just wanted to mention it.

  2. Duncan

    Thanks Riana, maybe this shows the perils of one week impressions, but I really was struck by how little the divide has blurred. Sure, I saw the odd white guy selling papers, and the buppies are very noticeable in their 4x4s, but not, I think in absolute numbers. However I would be interested in seeing the research you mention to see if I’m wrong on this.

  3. Duncan, I too was taken aback by your discussion above, especially your comment “apart from the elevation of a small black middle class via the black empowerment affirmative action programme”. Doesnt this presume that the only way that anyone black has become middle class is through affirmative action? Doesnt it presume that black South Africans have not created wealth though their own merit? Doesnt it ignore entrepreneurship, diligence and intellect? If I was a black South African I would find those comments pretty insulting!
    I lived in East London for four years and would find it hard to justify a comment like that. South Africa is no longer about white or black, it is about money and who can make the most. It does matter what your skin colour is (or even more specific what language you speak) as it can determine how easy it is to make money but you are no longer prevented from making money because of your skin colour. I think this is the problem that white South Africans face – they can no longer guarantee that they can have access to wealth, they have to work at it like everyone else. Perhaps there is some research somewhere on the white population emigrating because they no longer have access to economic participation; maybe its not the crime that drives them out but the prospect of having to become middle class.
    On your trip to Zambia, I hope you avoid the same assumptions – perhaps call in at UNZA and have a chat with some of the students and lecturers, or just go to one of the many street markets, to gain a real picture of what is going on.
    And yes you have succumbed to one week of impressions. I hope that your book is not based on a life of impressions and false assumptions?

  4. Duncan

    Harsh words Shupiwe! In this situation, the best advice is usually ‘if you’re in a hole, stop digging’, but I usually ignore good advice, so……
    Obviously, I do not believe that talent, entrepreneurship etc is irrelevant and the only path to a better life lies through black empowerment rules. But the fact remains that, despite BEE, the odds remain massively stacked in favour of whites and against non-whites. Young whites I spoke to do indeed feel frustrated, not so much at having to work for a living (I think you are caricaturing there), but at finding that many jobs are closed to them, (and many are leaving), but they still begin with huge advantages in terms of access to education, social networks etc. If you start off rich in SA, you are much more likely to remain rich – social mobility seems very low.

  5. Andrew Trench

    Hi Duncan
    I’m the current editor of the Dispatch and due to having my first holiday in a year was unable to attend your event.
    I have heard nothing but brilliant feedback from my colleagues who were there and I hope we will be able to share your fascinating views with our readers and the citizens of our town in future.
    Thanks again!

  6. Duncan, thanks for your comments on my comments, allow me to dig the hole further….
    I was wondering if you spoke to middle class black South Africans on your trip? Did you visit any communities? Did you visit any activist NGOs?
    I think that contrary to your article in terms of economic equality, South Africa is doing better than you think!

  7. Duncan

    well, it was a book launch rather than a research trip, so I spoke to a rather different group of people than I normally would: students, academics, activists, journalists and bookish types. Didn’t get out to visit the kinds of partners Oxfam works with on the ground on this occasion. So in answer to your question, yes on middle class black Africans and activist NGOs, no on communities.

  8. While I was touched by the whole initiative of ‘how active citizens and effective states can change the world’ , I was very surprized by Shupiwe saying South Africa is doing better than you think. No, it’s not. Unemployment and poverty is ruining our country, and we need to do something about it. Our organization is trying to do just that, but we need the help of each and every South African to accomplish our goal. Duncan, I would love to chat to you about this, if you could please send me an email?