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The Poor Get Poorer In South Africa - 2003-05-19

In South Africa, new research shows poor blacks are getting poorer. For instance, two out of three black households in Cape Town townships do not have enough food.

The years following the 1994 democratic elections have not brought an economic boon to many poor black families in South Africa. In fact, the income gap between blacks and whites has widened.

Cobus de Swardt is project leader for the Chronic Poverty Research Center in South Africa.

He says, "It is clear from our research that black households on average have actually had a substantial decline in their income in the period from 1995 to 2000 – around about 19 percent. White households in that same period have fared quite well and have increased their average incomes by about 15 percent, meaning that the average inequality gap between white households and black households increased from about four times in 1994/95 to about six times in the year 2000."

The research is based on a survey of black townships around Cape Town, where 76 percent of households live below the poverty line. That means they earn less than 42 US dollars a month. In fact, the survey shows “over half of the families in the townships had no waged income, and that almost one third reported that the main breadwinner had lost a job in the previous year.”

Dr. de Swardt says the roots of chronic poverty for many black families can be traced to a time long before the end of apartheid - what he calls the post oil crisis period.

"In that period," he says, "unemployment in South Africa started to increase rapidly from less than two million to over five million people." He says, " And the whole structure of the economy changed. And this accelerated after 1994, so that black workers and in particular Africa workers that were poorly skilled were no longer required in this changed economic structure of South Africa."

He also says “colonial land-grabbing and apartheid destroyed the black farming economy in order to create a cheap labor force.” And over the past decade, conditions have worsened for black workers “as South African employers opted to invest in mechanization rather than labor.” That increased unemployment further.

He says, "On one level the bargaining power of black labor has decreased despite the end of apartheid mainly because about one million jobs were lost in the formal sector over the last decade. That’s about one in ten jobs. Now surely that makes any organization of labor more difficult in a period where the formal economy is continually shedding jobs. But secondly and more seriously, we find ourselves now in the position that black workers no longer have the skilled required in the economy. And that means their bargaining powers their bargaining power’s again been seriously eroded."

He says, “Over 60-percent of South Africans who are unemployed have never had a job in their lives.” And surprisingly, having an education does not necessarily help poor blacks get a job. In fact, he says, “In poor areas there is actually a negative correlation between years of education and ability to find a paying job.”

He says, "This is particularly devastating in urban economies. To give you a practical example, outside Cape Town, in two townships, there’s about three quarters of a million people. The less education you have the more likely you are to get a paid job. And that is because even if you have nine or ten years of education, your skills are not appropriate to what is needed. And you’re over qualified for the very few low skilled jobs that are available."

The research also shows chronic poverty “puts households at risk of malnutrition, disease and violence.” It says the main causes of death in the townships are avoidable. For example, nearly 40 percent of the deaths are blames on HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis and nearly 30 percent on physical assault.

Dr. de Swardt says the government needs to sharply increase spending on a social security system, which includes better health care and education for poor households. But does South Africa have the money for such programs?

He says, "Prior to a serious situation, such as a war, there’s never enough money for social spending. A serious crisis develops and suddenly we find the money. That’s the short answer. The more direct answer is that most definitely it will mean a higher taxation of middle class South Africans, which is never easy for any government to instigate. But it is a relative small increase that would be needed to fund, for example, something such as a basic universal income grant that will be paid out to all people."

He says in recent years middle class families have had their taxes cut. Besides an increase in government spending on social programs, another recommendation is to give poor families direct access to land so they can grow their own food.