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Home Discussion Papers Counter Proliferation Poverty alleviation strategies in South Africa: Creating dignified living for women through social justice and development
Poverty alleviation strategies in South Africa: Creating dignified living for women through social justice and development
Written by Rita Ozoemena (1) Thursday, 02 September 2010 08:24

In recent months, South Africa has witnessed series of social unrest, many of which ended in violence by very poor communities who allege poor delivery of basic goods and services. The majority of South African citizens are poor and pervasive inequality exists between men and women and between black and white peoples of the country. Thus far, the poverty alleviation strategies of Government seem unable to reduce inequalities and the consequences of poverty amongst women in rural areas. Many of the existing policies deal mostly with the formal sector, to the detriment of the informal, non-remunerative roles rural women perform. Most of these policies are furthermore not well implemented and hence do not benefit the maximum number of citizens. This brief examines the challenges to eradicating poverty amongst rural South African women with a view to offer a sustainable model of social justice and development.

Women and poverty in South Africa

In 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, poverty was identified as one of the challenges facing humanity. It was therefore imperative for governments to implement strategies aimed at eradicating poverty. According to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BDPFA) point 16, “Eradication of poverty based on sustained economic growth, social development and social justice requires the involvement of women as agents and also beneficiaries of people-centred sustainable development.” It is noteworthy that, 15 years after the establishment of this Platform for Action, most South African women still live in poor conditions with meagre salaries, with few skills, poor sanitation and inadequate basic necessities. According to official data from Statistics South Africa, more than 25 million of the country’s 48, million citizens are women,(2) but this fact has not improved their status in any way. Social development and social justice still lack efforts to improve the status of women.

Despite large-scale urban migration, most women live in rural areas where the incidence of poverty is much higher than in urban areas. About 59.3% of poor individuals are rural dwellers and the highest prevalence of poor rural dwellers is found in the female population between the ages of 25-49.(3)  South Africa is also rated as the 12th most inequitable country on earth.(4) In line with global commitment to eradicate extreme poverty by 2015 in terms of the first Millennium Development Goal (NDG),(5) South Africa has made specific achievements in reducing income poverty and poverty amongst those living under the international rate of less than US$ 1 a day. From April 1994 – March 2004, social grants have been increased from ZAR 10 billion to ZAR 37.1 billion (around US$ 5 billion). During the same period, the Government has been able to provide over 435, 000 homes with electricity, sanitation and safe drinking water.(6) Despite these achievements, the extent of inequality between rich and poor is so great that it is impossible to bridge the gap by 2015 with current efforts. Such inequalities are defined by several factors such as race, gender and class. This is why poverty is mostly noted among the rural, poor and black communities.

Several factors contribute to poverty amongst rural women, including gender disparities in economic power-sharing and changes in family structures caused by migration and/or ill-health. All of these factors have placed additional burdens on women, particularly those who provide for several dependants. The feminisation of poverty in South Africa has a rural and a racial dimension, to the extent that it obstructs the well-being of women and sustainable development.(7)  Manifestations of poverty include limited or no access to education, increasing mortality and morbidity from illness, chronic ill-health, homelessness and inadequate housing, and unsafe environment. Inadequate housing and homelessness significantly affects poor women, erodes their dignity and undermines social justice and development. Adequate housing (or ‘human settlement’ as it is now referred to in South Africa) for women is imperative to sustainable development. 

Dignified living for women in South Africa

In 2009, the Jacob Zuma Government created the Department for Women, Children and People with Disability (DWCPD) with the mandate to “Emphasise the need for equity and access to development opportunities for vulnerable groups in our society.”(8) In other words, the Department of Women, Children and Persons with Disability was established to empower women, particularly the rural poor; to ensure that they have access to basic necessities in their communities regardless of class and status. This policy is supposed to ensure social justice and development for women, especially for the rural poor, who are most vulnerable. In addition, Government presented the Ministry of Human Settlements with a new mandate to include sanitation as a necessary condition for human settlement. Government emphasised the fact that housing is not just about physical structures, but that it should encompass other aspects aimed at ensuring the over-all wellbeing of individuals. The Ministry still has backlog of about 2.1million housing units which accounts for 12 million South Africans still in need of shelter.(9) The absence of basic shelter for women exposes them to other vulnerabilities like violence and disease. The fact that women are not provided with access to the necessities guaranteed by socio-economic rights and justice is therefore at the root of many of the issues they face. The need to harness the rights of women with appropriate developmental policies to promote social justice is certainly urgent and deserves more attention and resources.

Poverty and the legal right not to be poor

For the greater part of 2009, many townships in South Africa were literally burning up with mass protests against poor service delivery and the slow pace of development in their communities. The people were angry with Government for not fulfilling most of the promises made to them during election campaigns. Why has poverty remained so prevalent amongst South Africans of colour sixteen years into democracy? Why have at least 47.1 % of South Africa’s population consumed less than the ‘lower-bound’ poverty line as according to Statistics South Africa in 2007? 47.1 % of citizens could not afford ZAR322 (about US$ 43) for essential food and non-food items.(10) Do the protesters have the right not to be poor? They have managed to claim the right to demonstrate and picket as provided for in the Constitution.(11) The violence that followed these demonstrations underscores the depth of indignity faced by the poor, most of whom are rural women.

The South African Constitution’s Bill of Rights provides everyone the right “to have access to housing, health care services, sufficient food and water and social security.”(12) Government can only provide for these rights to the extent of available resources, however. Adopting legislation to give effect to these rights is one of the means to their realisation.  Several claims have also been made in the Constitutional Court to assert these rights.(13) The legal right not to be poor is advocated especially for Africans,(14) but the content of the right is indeterminable. How do the women in the remote parts of the Eastern Cape hold the Government accountable for living in squalor and for not being able to gain employment to put food on the table? 

Expanded social assistance and other grants by the Department of Social Development have greatly improved the lives of millions of beneficiaries, including women and children. Government increased grants from 1.9 % of GDP in 2000/01 to about 3.3 % in 2007/08 and the number of beneficiaries rapidly grew from 3 million to 12.4 million.(15) This change in social grants policy decreased the incidence of poverty amongst individuals by at least 15%.(16) Despite these progressive changes in the living standards of some individuals, many continue to live in shacks and informal dwellings strewn across all cities in the country, in sharp contrast to the vibrant and bustling economic hub usually seen from across the street or town. The nature of this marked difference underscores the question of the legal right not to be poor. Violent protests by communities are an indication of the extent of indignity and outrage experienced by the poor. In fact, the situation highlights the importance of going beyond policies and regarding non-poverty a right to be claimed by individuals and that demands accountability from Government, civil society and the international community at large.

The logical inference to be drawn from the programmes of Government is that they seem to be inextricably linked to the right to development which is seen as a claim to the legal right not to be poor.  Although the right to development is a controversial topic at the global level, the United Nations (UN) supports the idea of such a right.(17) The controversy arises from the notion that the nature and content of the right is unclear. On the African continent, however, such controversies seem to have been dealt with as explicitly provided in the African charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights when it became the first legally-binding instrument to accord recognition to development as a right.(18) Academics and scholars have tried to pin the right to development as a legal right against poverty which is an affront against humanity and thus demands the narrowing of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.(19)

South Africa has made great strides in granting right of access to healthcare, housing and social security. Considering the situational analysis, it is not clear whether South Africa complies with the ideals of this right. It seems that there is a great need to align poverty alleviation policies with housing, education, health and labour matters.

Engendering social justice and development in South Africa

President Zuma said that “Programmes put in place by Government must aim at restoring the dignity of the people. This can only be achieved through investment in habitable and decent settlement which would promote human dignity and stability in our communities.”(20)  He highlighted the fact that the “pervasive poverty experienced by majority of the people in South Africa today is as a result of the various Bantustan stands with no plan to develop roads, transport, sanitation, or any other infrastructure.” In order to address the vulnerability that women face under these circumstances, the DWCPD is well poised to specifically deal with empowering women and other vulnerable groups, thereby promoting social justice and development. This can only be achieved through a Departmental socio-economic development model which adequately utilises gender budgeting and addresses critical areas of women’s needs, such as housing, health, education and employment. Unless these critical areas are managed by the DWCPD through proper mainstreaming, budgeting, monitoring and evaluation, endemic and pervasive poverty will remain and women will continue being the face of South African poverty.


(1) Contact Rita Ozoemena through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Gender Issues Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) The Republic of South Africa’s Narrative Report on the Implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on the 15th Anniversary of the Adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Its Platform for Action in 2010, submitted to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa by the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities (DWCPD). 
(3) Armstrong, P, Lekezwe, B, Siebrits, K. 2010. ‘Poverty Remains the Priority for SA.’   
(4) P, Leite, T, Mckinkley and R, Osorio. 2006. “The post-apartheid evolution of earning inequality in South Africa.” Poverty Centre working paper. Page 25.
(5) The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted in 2000 by countries of the world to commit themselves to dealing with core development problems of the peoples of the world. Goal 1 is to ‘Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.’
(6) T. Modisane & D. Masango, ‘SA on track for Millennium Goals,’ 6 September, 2005.
(7) African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). 2007. Report on South Africa, quoted in Republic of South Africa’s Narrative Report on the Implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on the 15th Anniversary of the Adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Its Platform for Action in 2010, submitted to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa by the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities (DWCPD). Page 4.
(8) South Africa’s Narrative Report submitted to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa on the 15th Anniversary of the Adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Its Platform for Action in 2010. Page 5.
(9) Parliamentary Monitoring Group of the Department of Human Settlements Strategic Plan, 2009-2014.
(10) Armstrong, P, Lekezwa, B, Siebrits, K, 2010. ‘Poverty Remains the Priority for SA,’
(11) Section 17 of the Constitution. Act 108 of 1996.
(12) Sections 26 (1), 27 (1) (a), (b), (c) of the Constitution. Act 108 of 1996.
(13) Soobramoney v Minister of Health, Kwa Zulu Natal, 1998 (1) SA 765 (CC), dealt with the right of access to health care and emergency treatment in terms of section 27 (3) of the Constitution; Government of South Africa & Others v Grootboom & Others 2001 (1) SA 46 (CC) dealt with right of access to adequate housing. Soobramoney and Grootboom died without realising these rights despite the urgent need. Other cases include Minister of Health & Others v Treatment Action Campaign & Others, (N0 2 ) 2002 (5) SA 721 (CC), which dealt with right of access to health care to prevent mother to child transmission of HIV for pregnant HIV positive mothers-to-be; and Khoza & Others v Minister of Social Development & Others 2004 (6) SA 504 (CC).
(14) Udombana, N, 1993. “The Third World and Right to Development.” in Human Rights Quarterly, 589.   
(15) Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhon further increased the social grant in the 2010 budget.
(16) Armstrong, P, Lekezwe, B, Siebrits, K, ‘Poverty Remains the Priority for SA,’ NGO Pulse,  
(17) United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Right to Development was adopted by the General Assembly in 1986.
(18) The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights was adopted on 27 June 1981 and it entered into force on 21 October 1986. Article 22 provides that “all peoples shall have the right to their economic, social and cultural development with due regard to their freedom and identity and in the equal enjoyment of the common heritage of mankind, states shall the duty, individually or collectively, to ensure the exercise of the right to development.”
(19) Hansungule, M. 2006. ‘The Right to Development.’ Centre for Human Rights University of Pretoria, p 7.
(20) Zuma, J, ‘Good Human Settlement makes good future,’ Independent Online, 18 may 2010,  


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