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Promises to the poor will be on the agendas of politicians campaigning ahead of the November local elections. We unpack how poverty is defined in South Africa.

This article is more than 2 years old

South Africa is set to hold municipal elections on 1 November 2021. Citizens will elect representatives for district, metropolitan and local municipal councils across the country’s nine provinces.

Poverty is one of the key issues political parties are addressing ahead of the elections. “The only thing that can lift millions of South Africans out of crippling poverty is the kind of economic activity that brings millions of jobs,” argued the Democratic Alliance in its election manifesto.

How is poverty defined in South Africa? And how many people are considered poor? We answer these questions and more. 

1. How is poverty measured?

Poverty lines are official thresholds below which people are considered poor, according to Statistics South Africa (Stats SA).

The three poverty lines “capture different degrees of poverty and allow the country to measure and monitor poverty at different levels”, says Stats SA.

The food poverty line is the amount of money a person needs to get the minimum required daily nutrition. This is around 2,100 calories per day. In 2021 this amount was set at R624 per person per month. This is considered “extreme poverty”, below which people cannot afford to eat enough to meet their basic physical needs.

The lower-bound poverty line includes non-food household items but people at this level would need to “sacrifice food in order to obtain these”. In 2021 it was set at R890 per person per month. 

The upper-bound poverty line includes both adequate food and non-food household items such as shelter, clothing and transportation. In 2021 it was set at R1,335 per person per month. 

2. How many people live in poverty?

The latest data from Stats SA showed that 30.4 million South Africans fell under the upper-bound poverty line in 2015. This represented 55.5% of the population. 

This was a decrease from the 31.6 million people who fell under the upper-bound poverty line in 2006.

Of those in poverty in South Africa in 2015, almost 13.5 million people fell under the food poverty line. 

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There is limited data on the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on poverty. The National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey found that in April and May 2021 10 million people, including 3 million children, were affected by hunger in the last seven days. Of these people, 1.8 million people, of whom 400,000 were children, were affected by “perpetual hunger”, meaning that someone in the household went hungry every day. 

Prof Reza Daniels is an associate professor in the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town and a former principal investigator of the survey. He told Africa Check that these hunger statistics can be used as an indicator of food poverty.

“It would be accurate to say poverty has increased in South Africa since the Covid-19 pandemic began,” he said. 

3. Who is most affected by poverty in South Africa?

Race is a strong indicator of the likelihood that someone lives in poverty. In 2015, 64.2% of black people lived below the upper-bound poverty line. In comparison, 41.3% of coloured people, 5.9% of Indian or Asian people and 1% of white people did. 

Poverty also varies in the country by location. The Eastern Cape province had the highest share of poor residents, at 72.9%. Limpopo was marginally lower at 72.4%. Gauteng province had the lowest share of poor residents, at 33.3%. 

In 2015, 79.2% of South African adults with no education lived in poverty. In comparison, 35.6% of adults with only a matric qualification lived in poverty. The figure was just 8.4% for adults with education beyond high school.

More South African children than any other age group are poor. The data shows that poverty is highest for the age group from birth to 17. In 2015, 66.8% of children lived in poverty, up from 63.7% in 2011. The age group with the lowest levels of poverty were people aged 45 to 54, at 42.2%.

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