Stats SA recently announced that poverty is increasing in the country, and said that the number of people living in extreme poverty – those who earn less than R441 a month – rose from 11 million in 2011 to 13.8 million in 2015. This is said to take South Africa back to the level of extreme poverty that was experienced in 2007.

The statistics further show that 30.4 million people – more than half of the country’s population of 55 million – live in poverty, which increased from 53.2{4ba40f35a64422d139afcca78735ce49ef5e848e03c4f0f70d99bf6c0ca56d3e} to 55.5{4ba40f35a64422d139afcca78735ce49ef5e848e03c4f0f70d99bf6c0ca56d3e} between 2006 and 2015. Unemployment is at its highest at about 28{4ba40f35a64422d139afcca78735ce49ef5e848e03c4f0f70d99bf6c0ca56d3e} officially and about 36{4ba40f35a64422d139afcca78735ce49ef5e848e03c4f0f70d99bf6c0ca56d3e} unofficially. The statistics show that the most vulnerable are those who are younger than 17.

But statistics don’t do justice to the ugly reality of poverty – they don’t provide visuals; the human face of it. They do not make you stop in your tracks with a heavy feeling and a sense of shame that, by some act or omission, you are one of those responsible for letting others languish in that indignity. Statistics may provoke an article or two that highlight the issue and apportion blame, but people soon move on and resume their lives as if nothing happened.

A visit to Tidimala Primary School, about 45km from Pretoria, brought us face to face with the reality of poverty, its indignity and its contribution to the underdevelopment of children from poor households. The poverty I witnessed at the school left me feeling sad and ashamed to think that, somehow, I could have done something to prevent those children from languishing in an education environment that is not only unhealthy, but also likely to condemn them to the cycle of poverty. At Tidimala, more than at Sizabantwana Primary School, which we also visited under the auspices of the Tutudesk Campaign, we were confronted with the harsh reality of how the other half lives. This extreme poverty is juxtaposed with the fact that some of our country’s business luminaries, including those from historically disadvantaged groups, proudly feature on the global Forbes magazine list of dollar billionaires.

Wantu Madonsela and I, representing the Thuma Foundation and MoveSA, respectively, joined Thandi Tutu, the CEO of the Tutudesk Campaign, and Australian High Commissioner Adam McCarthy for a handover of AusAID-sponsored makeshift desks to pupils at Tidimala and Sizabantwana as part of the Tutudesk Campaign, which seeks to provide portable desk-like surfaces to pupils as they wait for the provision of proper desks.

Perched in a sea of dust in Siyabuswa, Tidimala caters for about 700 pupils in prefab classrooms. Where there are desks, three to four pupils share a space meant for two. There is no running water – they don’t even have JoJo tanks. Teachers and pupils relieve themselves in pit latrines. There is no electricity and no heaters for the pupils, who huddle together on the concrete floor, some visibly shivering from the cold. There are no computers, not even for office administration. There is no laboratory and no library. It looked like a scene from a movie depicting colonial Africa.


It was difficult to reconcile what we saw with 21st-century South Africa, which operates within a Constitution that promises every person a freed potential and improved quality of life. The children are clearly getting a disadvantaged education foundation.

The teachers at Tidimala have their own poverty story. I learnt that some of them volunteer full-time without a salary. This was the case with Sally (not her real name), who teaches maths and life skills to Grade 6 pupils.

When I was the Public Protector, I discovered that the reliance on volunteers, mostly women, to prop up public services is a systemic problem. Many volunteers have been providing services – sometimes for more than a decade – in policing, healthcare and auxiliary social work, with the hope of remunerated work someday. But then they are the victims of queue jumping by the politically connected.

Inevitably, we must ask who is responsible for the anachronistic undignified conditions at Tidimala. The school exists thanks to the community’s initiative – before it was built, the little ones had to walk long distances in harsh weather conditions to get an education.

Should we blame apartheid? Perhaps that partially explains the lack of infrastructure, including schools and electricity, in historically black residential areas. But, truth be told, Tidimala is a testimony to the failure of the policy to align living conditions for all with the constitutional promise of a freed potential and improved quality of life.

Incidentally, Stats SA also blames growing poverty on policy failure. Had we maintained former president Nelson Mandela’s two-pronged approach of balancing basic needs with global competitiveness, Tidimala would not look like a school in the dark ages, 23 years into democracy. The country also does not have an anti-poverty strategy, despite a previous commitment to the Millennium Development Goals and a current commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals. I pointed out this deficit to government in 2013. Tidimala also points to a failure to comply with section 237 of the Constitution, which enjoins government to give priority to constitutional obligations and perform same with diligence. Access to education and healthcare are guaranteed human rights and, accordingly, constitutional priorities as envisaged in section 237.

Furthermore, had there been no maladministration, including the wastage regularly identified by the Auditor-General, there would be more money available to install a basic minimum education infrastructure in all schools and accommodate other constitutional promises. The dire situation at Tidimala should also be laid at the door of the inexplicable failure of the government to implement chapter 5 of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act. Had chapter 5 been implemented, education infrastructure deficiencies would have been identified during an equality audit and given priority in resource allocations.

Corruption is also responsible for the abject poverty conditions in Tidimala and other places. For every public rand dishonestly and unlawfully siphoned into private pockets, there is less available for the inclusive development agenda that should engender a freed potential and improved quality of life for all.

But what can we do? To start with, we must do what we can to alleviate the problem. The Tutudesk Campaign is an example of how civil society working with corporate South Africa and others can step in to advance socioeconomic inclusion. We also need to get a grip on corruption, urgently.

The long-term view requires a policy review to assess the extent to which current policies have the capacity to reduce poverty and inequality. This can’t be government’s sole responsibility. Is it not high time that we all join hands to craft and execute an M-Plan like the post-World War 2 one to advance socioeconomic inclusion in a systematic way? On August 9, women said yes to the idea.

Madonsela is founder and chief patron of the Thuma Foundation

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