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26 July 2019

The Stellenbosch launch of Poverty & Inequality: Diagnosis, Prognosis, Responses

Antoinette Oosthuizen

Responding to poverty and inequality in South Africa requires more than focussing on the structural aspects of the economy. The humiliation that generations of South Africans were subjected to during apartheid has had a psychological impact that still affects people’s efforts to transition out of poverty. Sociologists need to understand this, HSRC CEO Prof Crain Soudien said during the launch of the book Poverty & Inequality: Diagnosis, Prognosis, Responses at Stellenbosch University (SU) on 23 July.

More than two decades after South Africa’s transition to democracy, poverty and inequality is still a major challenge in the country. Many of the structural causes have been measured and analysed, but understanding the psychological impact of subjection is complicated. It is a field of work that social scientists should pay more attention to, also to inform new policy approaches, Soudien said.

In one of the book’s chapters, Prof Göran Therborn, a former professor in sociology from Cambridge University, wrote that the roots of inequality are not only political or economic, but personal and psychological. The humiliation caused by subjection during apartheid has had a profound impact on self-esteem and how people conduct themselves, an effect which Therborn describes as “existential inequality”. Soudien quoted from Therborn’s book The Killing Fields: “When existential inequality is no longer backed up by strong norms of difference and by stark resource inequality, the reaction tends to be explosive. A great deal of contemporary youth violence in the rich countries seems to arise out of perceptions of non-respect. Existential humiliation is not to be played with.”

Prof Sandra Liebenberg, who holds the HF Oppenheimer chair in human rights at SU’s faculty of law, focussed on poverty and inequality from a human rights perspective, saying that access to many of the material goods that people need to survive in modern democracies is enshrined in South Africa’s Bill of Rights. Examples include housing and land, food, water, the air we breathe, social security, education and healthcare. By conceptualising economic and social deprivation and exclusion as matters of rights, the focus shifts from politics and economics to questions of legal accountability. “It raises questions as to what are the standards by which we can hold public and private actors to account for failing to realise socioeconomic rights? What are the forums and the institutional capacity through which people can seek redress if their rights are violated? And what are the kind of remedies that can be sought in these forums?”
Liebenberg welcomed the fact that some chapters in Poverty & Inequality address these questions, particularly from the perspective of the courts, the Human Rights Commission and other agencies of accountability in the society.

Prof Usuf Chikte, head of the Department of Global Health at SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, emphasised the need for more concrete responses, in addition to understanding the causes of poverty and inequality. He said that the structural aspects remain important, quoting the historian Colin Bundy who said that recognising inequality as a problem involves recognising the need for structural change, for sacrifices by the majority: “It also involves approving categories of social welfare which have hitherto been disproved of. In short, it means a painful war.”

*A range of academics and experts contributed chapters to Poverty & Inequality: Diagnosis, Prognosis, Responses, which was edited by Soudien, Prof Vasu Reddy, dean at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Humanities, and Prof Ingrid Woolard, dean at SU’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences. The Stellenbosch book launch was chaired by Prof Servaas van der Berg of Research on Socio-Economic Policy at SU’s Department of Economics.

Antoinette Oosthuizen

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