Where are South Africa’s poorest places? Two maps find the patterns of poverty: the share of households living in poverty in each municipality, and the number of poor people living there. An animation tries to make sense of the maps.
South Africa’s poorest province is the Eastern Cape. The wealthiest province is Gauteng. Around 880,000 of the mostly rural Eastern Cape’s people live in poverty. In Gauteng, a city region with the best opportunities for jobs, some 610,000 people live in poverty.
These numbers are calculated from Statistics South Africa’s 2016 Community Survey.
Poverty in South Africa has deep historical roots that show up in more recent movements of people.
The reason so many South Africans live in poverty, in a middle-income country, is apartheid. Apartheid was a crude attempt at social engineering designed to make black South Africans a cheap and plentiful source of labour.
Instead, it excluded the majority of the people from any meaningful participation in the economy. It made South Africa poorer than it should have been.
South Africa has a wealth of resources. But for more than 40 years, apartheid squandered this potential.
A government policy designed to keep most of its people poor seems, and is, absurd. But South Africa under apartheid was not a democracy. The only electorate the government had to please was white people. The apartheid planners purposefully built a system that prevented black South Africans from earning, prospering and contributing to the wealth of the country. That sucked the potential for growth out of the economy.
Today, geographical patterns of poverty on the map of South Africa still correspond to the apartheid “homelands”, barren rural regions far from cities, packed with people but with little infrastructure, no development and few jobs. Municipalities with high percentages of people living in poverty are today often found in regions that were once homelands.
But when we look at total numbers of people living in poverty, the cities stand out. Cities have larger numbers of people, so more people living in poverty are likely to be found there.
Migration from the rural areas to the cities is an important feature of recent South African history. Apartheid laws confined the poor to the rural areas. Once those laws were lifted in the late 1980s, poor people began to move to the cities – where they often stayed poor. And they keep moving.
How is poverty measured?
Poverty is easy to see, but less easy to define – or to measure across a city, a province or a country. Many measures of poverty use money. If a person lives on less than a certain threshold income they are considered to be living in poverty.
Income is used for the three national poverty lines developed in South Africa. These are the food poverty line (set at R531 per person per month in April 2017), the lower-bound poverty line (R758) and the upper-bound poverty line (R1,138).
Another picture can be painted when we look beyond income to the other ways people experience poverty. How does poverty reveal itself in people’s health, their level of education, the dwelling they live in, how they cook their food, the water they drink? Poverty examined according to different types of deprivation is known as multidimensional poverty.
For its 2016 Community Survey, on which the maps on this page were based, Statistics South Africa used the South African Multidimensional Poverty Index.
The index calculates the poverty of households according to four aspects of life: health, education, living standards and economic activity.
These four are known as the dimensions of poverty. Each dimension is assessed according to different indicators.
The poverty indicators
The health dimension has only one indicator: child mortality, or whether a child under the age of five living in the household has died in the past year.
Education has two indicators. One is years of schooling, or whether no person in the household aged 15 or older has completed five years of schooling. The other, school attendance, looks at whether any school-age child seven to 15 years old does not attend school.
Living standards has seven indicators, to do with fuel, water, sanitation, type of dwelling and ownership of assets. What fuel does the household use for lighting, heating and cooking? Is there piped water in the dwelling? Does the household have a flushing toilet? What kind of dwelling does the household live in? What does the household own?
Economic activity is measured by joblessness: whether all the adults, people aged 15 to 64, are out of work.
Each household is scored according to these indicators. If the score is 33.3% or more, the household is living in poverty – they are “multidimensionally poor”.
The South African Multidimensional Poverty Index
|Health||Child mortality||If any child under five in the household has died in the past 12 months.||25%|
|Education||Years of schooling||If no household member aged 15 or older has completed five years of schooling.||12.5%|
|School attendance||If any school-aged child (7 to 15 years old) is out of school.||12.5%|
|Standard of living||Fuel for lighting||If the household uses paraffin, candles, “other” or nothing for lighting.||3.6%|
|Fuel for heating||If the household uses paraffin, wood, coal, dung, “other” or nothing as fuel for heating.||3.6%|
|Fuel for cooking||If the household uses paraffin, wood, coal, dung, “other” or nothing as fuel for heating.||3.6%|
|Water access||If there is no piped water in the household dwelling or on the stand.||3.6%|
|Sanitation type||If the household does not have a flushing toilet.||3.6%|
|Dwelling type||If the household lives in an shack, a traditional dwelling, a caravan, a tent or other informal housing.||3.6%|
|Asset ownership||If household does not own more than one of these: a radio, a television, a telephone or a refrigerator. And does not own a car.||3.6%|
|Economic activity||Unemployment||If all the adults (aged 15 to 64) in the household are unemployed.||25%|
Intensity of poverty
The score also measures the intensity of poverty.
In the 2016 Community Survey, the average intensity of the poverty experienced by multidimensionally poor people in the nine provinces ranged from 40.1% in the Western Cape to 44.1% in Gauteng.
Poverty in South Africa’s provinces
|Population||Households||Average household size||Households in poverty||People in poverty (based on population)*||People in poverty (based on households)*||Intensity of poverty|
In Gauteng, only 4.6% of the population live in poverty. But the poverty experienced in Gauteng, the wealthiest province, is the most intense.
The multidimensional poverty index is not intended to replace the other important measures of poverty.
The multidimensional index, Statistics South Africa says, should rather be seen as “a complementary measure to these money-metric measures”.
How do we fight poverty?
South Africa is a capitalist country and one of the most unequal in the world. This is not only inequality of income. As the World Bank says in a recent report: “Inequality of opportunity, measured by the influence of race, parents’ education, parents’ occupation, place of birth, and gender influence opportunities, is high.”
South Africa’s social welfare system attempts to reduce the worst deprivations of poverty. This “social wage” is paid to the poor in a number of ways.
It includes free primary healthcare, no-fee schools, RDP housing and housing subsidies, free basic water, electricity and sanitation for the poorest households, and social grants.
Social grants in South Africa
|Type of grant||Grant amount April 2018||Grant amount October 2018||Number of beneficiaries as of November 2017|
|Old age grant (people aged 60 to 74)||R1,690||R1,700||3,379,391|
|Old age grant (people aged 75 and above)||R1,710||R1,720|
|War veterans grant||R1,710||R1,720||151|
|Grant in aid||R400||R410||184,015|
|Child support grant||R400||R410||12,249,870|
|Foster child grant||R960||R960||481,784|
South Africa spent R164.9 billion on social protection – mainly in providing social grants – in the 2016/17 financial year, with an increase to R209.1 billion planned for 2019/20. Social protection is the third fastest-growing spending category for the government after post-school education and health. The broad social wage is said to account for almost 60% of government spending.
When South Africa became a democracy in 1994, social protection was introduced as a short-term measure to ease the dire poverty created by apartheid. But social grants are now the only livelihood of many South Africans, and remain essential to reducing poverty.
- Statistics South Africa Community Survey 2016
- Community Survey 2016: Provinces at a Glance
- The South African Multidimensional Poverty Index
- Statistics South Africa: Poverty Trends in South Africa
- World Bank and Statistics South Africa: Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa
- South African Social Security Agency: New social grant amounts
- South African Social Security Agency: Statistical reports
- Animation: Measuring the dimensions of poverty in South Africa
- Infographic: Exploring poverty in South Africa’s provinces
- The provinces and ‘homelands’ of South Africa before 1996
- Map: Distribution of South Africa’s races
- The nine provinces of South Africa
- Infographic: Population density in South Africa’s provinces
- The economies of South Africa’s provinces
- South Africa’s population
Researched, written and designed by Mary Alexander.
Updated 10 November 2022.