Press "Enter" to skip to content

The terminal nature of poverty

By Gillian Schutte

As academics, journalists, social commentators and activists we have a sense that we know the poor. We are outraged by poverty and inequality and advocate for equity and a life of dignity for all. We look for ways to bring the voices of the poor into the public debate and ask questions around how we can get democracy to work for the poor. But few of us have even an inkling of the full spectrum of what it means to be poor.

We live in one of the most unequal societies in the world. Poverty is all around us and it is strongly concurrent with differences in race. Whites remain in the richest economic category with Indians and coloureds following.

Besides the burgeoning black middle class, and the small black elite, mostly in South Africa to be born black means to live a life of quiet desperation with little hope of ever finding a job. Pensioners are forced to support grandchildren on minuscule pensions that hardly cover their own expenses. While the majority of the poor are black there are small pockets of desperately poor whites and larger pockets of minority group poverty.

Despite the countries immense mineral wealth, the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever — 18 million live on less R11 a day. One in every two young South Africans is out of work. As a result of this dire poverty and lack of employment violence is commonplace and the most vulnerable in our society become even more defenseless.


The great surge of hope that swept our country in 1994 when Mandela came into power has sadly dissipated as he now fights his final battle. For millions of South Africans his vision of freedom, equality and justice has been squandered away by his own facilitation of the neoliberal economic policies that replaced the Freedom Charter.

Neoliberalism is a term that is widely bandied about in a vacuum of understanding — but the effects of it can be seen in the growing chasm between the rich and the poor. In a nutshell, neoliberalism is an economic set of rules that liberates “free enterprise” or private enterprise from any regulations imposed by government — often resulting in dire social damage. It means opening up the market to international trade and investment and reducing the bargaining powers of workers by encouraging deunionisation and eliminating many workers rights. It means becoming capital-intensive and reducing a workforce to casual labour. Price controls are lessened and freedom is granted to capital goods and services.

The premise is that an unregulated market is the best way to increase economic growth as the wealth trickles down to the poor — but this trickle-down effect does not happen and the poor grow poorer.

All in all, neoliberalism works against the poor and increasingly the middle class too as public expenditure for social services are cut, reducing the safety net for citizens, but especially the poor who are reliant on this safety net for their very survival. Privatising public works also pushes prices for services such as electricity and water into brackets that essentially exclude the poor from basic services.

The ideological discourse that upholds this neoliberal system is a liberal individualistic one that speaks of personal effort — pressuring the poorest people in a society to find solutions to their lack of healthcare, education and social security all by themselves — then blaming them, if they fail, as “lazy”.

Those who push this liberal discourse have very little knowledge of, or interest in what it means to be poor. Over the years we have spoken to many people about their poverty and have compiled a list of experiences of poverty as told to us by people living this reality.

To be poor is to lack decent shelter, nutritious food and adequate clothing. It is to be sick and not have access to healthcare facilities.

To be poor is to be hungry a lot of the time and to watch your children or grandchildren cry and writhe from the pain of hunger while being powerless to do anything about their agony as they try to sleep on empty stomachs.


To be poor is to often have little control over adverse events that affect them directly. When they rise up to defend themselves they are often treated indefensibly by institutions of state and society and excluded from voice and power in those institutions.

To be poor is to live with toothache and then having to pull your own teeth out to relieve the pain. It is to live without necessities such as toilet paper and sanitary pads. It means young girls have to miss school when menstruating.

To be poor also means to have no space for dreams and aspirations, as survival is paramount. It means watching others enjoy life and wonder what you did to deserve your life.

To be poor is to worry whether your newborn baby will be gnawed at by rats in an mjondola in Alex and staying awake all night to make sure your baby is safe.

To be poor is to know that other people think you are lazy and dirty because you are forced to scavenge on rubbish dumps for your next meal.

To be poor is to most often be spoken to like a child or be treated rudely when doing important self-help tasks such as going to get medication at a public hospital. It is to be treated badly in banks and municipalities when you enquire about inflated bills. It is to often be fobbed off and given the wrong information when you desperately need legal help.

To be poor is to constantly live with stress. Not moments of stress. Not stress than can be overcome with a cocktail or a tub of chocolate ice-cream. This is on-going stress — a lifetime of stress. It is a stress that the poor wake up with in the morning and go to sleep with at night. It is that stress that eats away at their joy and freedom. It is that stress that eats away at body and health. It is terminal stress.

Poverty causes soul crushing depression and anxiety.

In fact recent studies by the World Health Organisation have shown that poverty has long-lasting effects on the health and general wellness of humans, symptoms that can be difficult to reverse. The costs of being poor are high in terms of the diseases that poverty gives rise to.

The reasons for the poor health of impoverished communities are obvious when entering into an informal settlement or poor neighbourhood. Most often these environments are dirty and there is a stench in the air because of lack of sanitation and services — amenities that are meant to be provided by the municipality. Housing is also shoddy and clean water and toilets are often just not available forcing people to walk for kilometres to fetch water from taps.

Access to healthy food is also a major problem for the poor. Big chain stores are often not within walking distance and poor people are then forced to spend their money on transport, which adds an extra strain on their tiny budgets. If they want to buy at smaller spaza shops they often have to pay inflated costs. Also spaza shops or takeaways often and do not sell healthy and fresh foods, so they end up eating food high in fat, sodium and sugar. All of this contributes to illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

It is a known fact that the poor are very often moved into areas that are the dumping grounds for industrial pollution and waste. Thus to be poor means to live in regions with dangerously toxic air quality and polluted water. Impoverished communities have historically been placed downwind, downstream and adjacent to big industry as a source of readily available cheap labour. This means respiratory illness is rife and families are forced to spend a large part of their salaries on asthma medication and nebulisers. Cancers such as leukaemia are also diseases that arise out of living in areas saturated with industrial pollutants.

Joblessness and low social grants create economic insecurity, which has devastating consequences for both physical and mental health. Economic inequality takes a massive toll on mental health. Recent studies have shown that economic insecurity creates stress levels on a par with those experienced by people experiencing warfare. New research has shown that the mental stress of being poor is a major reason that low-income people are more likely to have high blood pressure, cholesterol and become obese or diabetic, since long-term stress creates hormones that compromise the immune system and promote weight gain.

To be poor is also to live with feelings of worthlessness, anger and frustration with few public outlets to vent these feelings. The media often does not represent the voices of the poor and are more likely take the side of business instead. Coupled with non-caring government officials and police that often use brutality on poor people, these multilayers of stress create a pressure-cooker situation that can explode at any given transgression that “breaks the camel’s back”. The high incidents of domestic abuse, rape, robbery and murder, which inevitably manifest as social problems in poor areas, adds to the anger and frustration of citizens trying to lead a normal life in abnormal conditions. This can lead to people collectively taking the law into their own hands and meting out justice in a manner that appears brutal to those whose voices are heard and whose material, psychological and emotional needs are met due to their class.

Many times what people perceive as service-delivery protests are indeed coupled with outbreaks of utter frustration and desperation at being squeezed between capital greed and your own basic needs as you fall deeper and deeper into poverty. What the media report on as service-delivery protests are often poor people collectively calling out to be heard, to be recognised as human and to be treated with dignity. It is a desperate cry for the right to exist.

Indeed one of the consequences of neoliberal capitalism and poverty is the escalating incidence of social protests in South Africa. Researcher Jean Comaroff writes, that these social movements “in the wake of the growing spectre of [human] disposability” signify a struggle for “the basic right to exist” although it is often expressed differently in terms of a demand to basic services, resistance against displacement and disconnection from water or electricity.

But to be poor also means that premature death is always imminent. Many die from ill-health and hunger or face the possibility of dying in a protest. When collective bodies express their anxiety with the material conditions threatening their existence they are often met with direct state resistance, political confrontation and brutal conflict with the law. In today’s world the growing private sector is likely to let their private security armies onto people protesting and the results are often brutal.


This is nothing less than a war against the poor and they have very little state and private infrastructure to support their perspective and their right to live a normal life.

South Africa has become a neoliberal corporatist state that believes all of society should be structured in such a way as to serve the interests of monopoly capital at the expense of the people. This places the poor under more and more stress. The average lifespan for those people living under these desperate conditions is 44 years of age. Studies show that the average life expectancy of a black South African is 50 years — showing a large discrepancy in life expectancy and mortality rates between black people and those of white or coloured groups. That is more or less the same as the lifespan of peasants in the feudal medieval days and it is no wonder since 50% of our population continue to live in forced medieval conditions.

October is hunger month. The majority of South Africans remain hungry. The majority of South Africans do not have access to healthy food or proper nutrition and as the rich get richer the poor begin to starve.


  • An on-line documentary series produced by Media for Justice. This series highlights the voices of those who are marginalised on the basis of race, class and gender and is a platform to hear the voices of the people in their struggle for social justice and human rights. Presented by Sipho Singiswa and produced by Gillian Schutte For the full story go to


  1. Stiglitz Stiglitz 3 October 2013

    ‘Privatising public works also pushes prices for services such as electricity and water into brackets that essentially exclude the poor from basic services.’ Really? Some empirical evidence may help. SA’s public services and administered inflation in state services is running at over twice the inflation rate. Electricity, provided by the bloated parastatal Eskom, has seen massive cost increases over 400% in the last few years. Fuel price? regulated – nothing neoliberal here. Local rates, taxes – all public services – likewise. A bit less ideology and some more solid economics may help this analysis.

  2. Worker Worker 3 October 2013

    Not a single word about the role of the unions in destroying jobs and ensuring the unemployed remain unemployed. That the unions ensure the poor remain poor, and that they have no choice to offer their labour, should they desire to. Far from being a ‘neoliberal’ state, SA is a neosocialist state in thrall to party bosses, public servants and the union bosses. The current pathetic growth rate coupled to high inflation and massive unemployment is direct evidence of this.

  3. Bob Bob 3 October 2013

    Individualism does not preclude a decent social safety net.
    Almost no respected individualists have suggested that the state should not provide everyone with education. Or that the state should not provide a fair playing field (regulations, rule of law) so that competition can take place. And arguing against free trade in a resource-rich country is bizarre.

    In other words, you have constructed your own ideological enemy, which obviously has little to do with SA’s problems, since other individualist countries (including every rich country on Earth) are doing fine.

    That anyone can seriously still be anti-liberal (in other words, collectivist or totalitarian) after the Great Leap Forward, the Berlin wall, Gulag, Stasi etc, is simply madness.

  4. Ben Ben 4 October 2013

    Agree with Stiglitz, Worker, & Bob. COSATU Wants only ‘Decent Work”, & ‘Decent Wages’, whatever that means. They are content to see the desperate sitting on the pavement outside your local Macro hardware store, hoping for a job for the day. There are somewhere between 30 to 40% of South Africans in this category.

    Please Ms Schutte, ‘neo-liberal capitalism’ ??? has little to do with the plight of the poor.

  5. Bobbie Jacobs Bobbie Jacobs 4 October 2013

    I find this article shocking in its lack of factual content, relying as it does on conjecture and opinion. please don’t let the obvious economic failure of countries that pursue socialist agenda, such as Cuba, Russia and much of Eastern Europe deter you from spinning a good tale about the joys of a socialist state. Must be why there are so many immigrants and economic refugees fleeing Europe and America to head to former socialist and communist countries – oh wait! Reality check – rampant public sector corruption and non-democratic governments are far more harmful to the prospects of poor people than the market!

  6. maggielou maggielou 4 October 2013

    It’s high time that over paid journalists and radio hosts start looking at the REAL problems of poverty in our country. Instead of blaming ‘soft, abstact’ targets, lets take a look at some of the reality:

    1. How much does the CEO and other ‘big shots’ earn at Eskom? A chainsaw operator working for one of their contractors have to work a 10 hour shift under harsh and dangerous conditions, no food or access to it, for R105 a day!

    2. We have a hugely overstaffed civil service who are shamelessly overpaid for doing very little.

    3. Parastatal organisations created (probably more a matter of jobs for pals, which is the reason why Methetwas’s wife is involved) to ‘help’ and promote the underprivileged, are only looking after the already wealthy.

    4. Over spending of govt. depts …… then don’t forget the R200 (HIRING) per glass for their parties! Who got that ‘tender’ and when was that company created?

    If this BLAME GAME stops and REAL PROBLEMS get addressed, this country can work for all. Why is it that every Minister has his partner in a similar position? One family gets doubly enriched whereas the…

  7. Thabo Thabo 4 October 2013

    Couldn’t read more than the first few paragraphs. Again more fallacies comitted by a writer out of touch with the numbers of economics. ‘trickle down doesn’t happen’ – what absolute hogwash. when a new industry is created the money multiplier effect that flows from construction through to services is engaged. running a company is more than just educated accountants, but also for the low skilled machine observer. Property values increase, machines are serviced…whatever. that is the trickle down effect, and that comes from PRIVATE SECTOR JOBS, not unsustainable government poverty allievation! gah!

  8. Thabo Thabo 4 October 2013

    & further: the pathetic labour legislation in SA holds us back. the individual should be able to make their own decision to work or not, the Unions stifle any damn business we get and could possibly have. BMW halting all further investment in SA, because a group of no-skill laborers want to be paid like grads. WE have 50% unemployment, we cannot act like our labour is worthy of anything. We should have cheap cheap cheap labour with that kind of unemployment.

    Dear Mizz Schutte, quick question, what is greater- 1 person in a household earning R3000/month or 4 people in a household earning R1500.

    that is the economic reality faced in SA. these astronomical wage demands force up inflation- reducing real wages ultimately. Unionists are all fools and belong in an old world with their archaic system of removing the choice of the individual to work, or not.

  9. maggielou maggielou 4 October 2013

    @Thabo – if the upper echelon reduce their greed then the lower echelon could be paid more. With our c.o.l. at the moment, NO ONE should earn less than 6000 pm. If the real ‘labourers’ read in the press what the bosses earn (sometimes more only in ‘bonuses’) ….. surely something is wrong?

  10. Garth Garth 5 October 2013

    Your article is spot on – the comments above are from people who have not experienced what you and I obviously have
    Keep writing about it please

  11. Phathisani Phathisani 9 October 2013

    interesting writing and comments too. this is undoubtedly one of the greatest conversation point in the world today. Let the poor suffer or redistribute income, the truth is poverty will exist as long as people can multiply beyond the limits of the country’s resources, somebody will have to suffer the consequences of our poor family planning.

    In my opinion, this will continue for years as long as we don’t do anything about the land:capita ratio. I believe that every living being has the right to access the basics. I believe that there is a need to stop people movement into the urban areas by upgrading the facilities in rural areas, the health, criminal and environmental issues we face now are caused by overpopulation in areas that are not conducive for human settlements.

    Having said all the above, I think it would be a great point of departure to realize that the reduction or increase in GDP means absolutely nothing until the income benefits the inhabitants of the land, regardless of race and any other factors.

    The major question here is where RSA wants to go, capitalist or communist? once we have knowledge of that, we can then establish whether we are on the right track with unions or not. Until then, it’s a useless conversation to have.

Leave a Reply