'Dealing with Disadvantage' - a PII Seminar and Panel Discussion

16 Sep 2014 - 12:00

What does it mean to be disadvantaged? How should disadvantage be understood in the South African context? What does the government need to consider and do to address this challenge? These are critical questions we face in South Africa today. Twenty years into democracy, too many South Africans still experience disadvantage on a daily basis, facing formidable challenges in all spheres of life – unsafe and unsanitary housing, inadequate access to healthcare, basic services and reliable affordable public transport, rampant unemployment and an education system in crisis, compounded by the legacy of apartheid geography and spatial inequality. On 18 August 2014, the PII and the Philosophy Department at UCT co-hosted a public seminar and panel discussion with the aim of stimulating ideas for fresh policy thinking – and effective measures – to address disadvantage in the South African context. Professor Jonathan Wolff of University College, London, shared the platform with prominent South African activists and public figures, Dr Mamphela Ramphele and Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge,

Professor Wolff is Professor of Philosophy at UCL and a well-respected political philosopher. His recent work has concentrated on issues of distributive justice, with a particular interest in the relation between theory and policy. He has worked on topics such as disadvantage, disability and risk, and served on advisory committees for the UK government on social issues including gambling, health.


Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge is the Executive Director and founding member of Embrace Dignity. She has served as Chairperson of the ANC Parliamentary Caucus, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Deputy Minister of Health and Deputy Minister of Defence. Prior to her election to Parliament, Nozizwe was active in the liberation struggle, through the UDF and ANC underground. Nozizwe was a founder member of the Natal Organization of Women. Nozizwe has an honours degree in Philosophy from the University of Cape Town, an honorary doctorate from Haverford College, Pennsylvania, USA, and was a recipient of the Tanenbaum Peacemakers Award.

Dr. Ramphele started her career in the 1970s as a student activist in the Black Consciousness Movement. She has worked as a medical doctor, civil rights leader, community development worker, academic researcher, and as Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, the first black woman to hold this role at a South African university. She has received numerous prestigious national and international awards including 20 honorary doctorates acknowledging her scholarship, for her service to the community and her leading role in raising development issues and spearheading projects for disadvantaged persons throughout South Africa.

In Disadvantage, published in 2007, Wolff and co-author A de Shalit introduce two key concepts, drawing on Sen’s capability approach: ‘fertile functioning’ (one that tends to promote other related capabilities) and ‘corrosive disadvantage’ (a deprivation or ‘capability failure’ that has effects in other areas of life). Disadvantage is plural in nature and cannot be simply reduced or measured by a single index or figure. While in different societies disadvantage takes different forms and there are many ways in which people can be disadvantaged, commonly, it means bad health, low income and/or unemployment, poor housing, and in many cases, entanglement in the criminal justice system. What is clear is that insecurity intensifies all forms of disadvantage, and disadvantage tends to cluster.

Wolff elaborated on these concepts to provide a framework for the panel discussion on ‘dealing with disadvantage’ in the South African context. He quoted Uprooting Poverty, written after the Carnegie 2 Inquiry into black poverty in the 1980s by panellist Dr Mamphela Ramphele and Professor Francis Wilson, on the first tasks facing a democratic South African government: ‘to stop the juggernaut – the systematic attacks on the poor, forced removals, anti-urbanisation policies, colour bars, land wars, Bantu education, migrant labour, corruption, dispossession and destabilisation’. Ramphele asserted that the very existence of Carnegie 3 is an admission that these 1989 recommendations of Carnegie 2 have not yet been successfully implemented. Despite the abolition of many of these ‘corrosive social structures’ that underpinned apartheid – created through deliberate policies to reinforce a culture of disadvantage in a particular group – migrant labour persists, corruption is rife, official unemployment has worsened, the gap between the rich and poor is growing, and the majority of black South Africans remain ‘disadvantaged’.

Ramphele pointed out that South Africa has failed to harness the negotiated inclusive post-apartheid political system to transform the inherited extractive economic institutions and build inclusive ones. Yet economic growth has been modest at best, with the 2014 estimate at below 2%, barely missing a recession. Extractive political and economic institutions often lead to the failure of nations because they do not create incentives needed for people to save, invest and innovate. In her view, South Africa is at risk of failing for this very reason. (Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson, Crown Business, New York, 2012).

She outlined the real costs of poverty and inequality for the country: corruption and maladministration have undermined the provision of public services, leading to widespread social conflict, crime and insecurity, and violent public protests. The education system is failing millions of children and young people, characterised by massive drop-out rates and poor quality/low expectation of education performance despite significant public spending on education. Despite a huge budget, the Sectoral Education and Training Authority System is failing to produce the skilled and trained artisans and managers required. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), as a policy tool to open up the economy for greater black participation, has not addressed the fundamental transformation needs of South Africa’s economy. The tragedy of Marikana, with 47 deaths of Lonmin Platinum mineworkers, 34 of whom were killed by police with live ammunition on the 16th August 2012, is the whirlwind we are reaping for low wage, low skill extractive mining practices. The Financial Services industry is also operating along extractive, often exploitative, institutional lines, as highlighted by the recent failure of African Bank, an unsecured lending institution that focuses on poor people. The perpetuation of segregated cities and dormitory townships further disadvantages poor people, through high transport costs, long commuting time and, in many instances, poor schooling.

A key issue is to identify the priorities in South Africa today. South Africa seems to have skipped a stage, and is already at an advanced stage of monopoly capitalism. In this context, we need to think about types of employment that are suitable for a competitive, modern world and what can and needs to be done to generate opportunities. Some of the key challenges are clear: a huge informal sector, bureaucratic constraints to starting businesses; employment and unemployment; how to add value to commodities that are extracted before export. However, as Wolff pointed, while globally we are moving into an age of service industries – such as tourism, financial services, education and higher education – in South Africa a peculiar type of ‘apartheid’ service industry has developed in the areas of private security, domestic service and the minibus taxi industry.

Wolff highlighted that while it is important to understand the history and origins of problems in a society, a different type of thought is often needed to come up with solutions, drawing on a wider view of possibilities than is supplied in one’s own society. Ramphele argued that disadvantage in South Africa is largely a product of perpetuation of unfair advantage of a subset of the population (the elites) at the expense of the majority of the citizens. She stressed that it cannot be dealt with adequately – nor rooted out – without attention to the structural and process issues that create and perpetuate it, and an understanding of the real cost of poverty and inequality to South Africa.

In her presentation, Madlala-Routledge spoke about the work of Embrace Dignity, a human rights organisation she co-founded that advocates for law reform to end commercial sexual exploitation. She described prostitution as a particular manifestation of inequality, illustrative of the concept of ‘corrosive disadvantage’, rather than evidence of individual agency or ‘choice’, and affecting the most marginalised in our society. Poverty drives many women into prostitution, which exposes them to further vulnerability and risk – of disease, stigma, violence, drug and alcohol addiction. She illustrated this by sharing personal experiences of some of the women in Embrace Dignity, showing how their entry into prostitution, largely for economic purposes, drove them even further towards the margins in society, often severing their access to personal and family support networks. 

Madlala-Routledge stated that much of the current discourse on prostitution focuses on legal reform, without adequate attention on underlying structures and socio-economic drivers – issues around gender, privilege, power, patriarchy, disability, sexual orientation and poverty. These issues need to be researched and understood in order to inform the development of effective policy and coordinated programmatic interventions that address both ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ in the ‘sex industry’. She acknowledged the role that UCT plays in establishing linkages with civil society, offering research partnerships that provide vital information for civil society advocacy, and platforms such as this event to share ideas and develop policy recommendations. In conclusion, she stressed the need for political will on the part of government to address disadvantage and active citizenry to ensure accountability, realize rights and promote social change

In lively discussion that followed the presentations, several members of the audience questioned whether democracy in South Africa is ‘working’ for the majority, or whether choices have been made to play ‘catch up’ with developed nations. Given that capitalism in its essence is extractive and power is linked to ownership, can poverty and inequality be ‘solved’ within a capitalist framework?

Has South Africa merely moved from an old elite monopoly capitalist exploitative system to one in which the new elite participates and benefits? Many participants stressed the need for a critical analytic framework to understand and address structural issues in a more systemic way. An interesting suggestion that emerged was to consider shifting the focus from ‘disadvantage’ to ‘advantage’ given South Africa’s political history and glaring inequality. 

Many problems linked to unemployed or unemployable youth can be directly traced to a failed education system. And yet, many of these social problems – schooling, drugs, housing, service delivery – can be fixed, particularly if government does its job and the private sector engages actively in delivering concrete solutions.   

Another audience member pointed out that poverty is often seen as a lack of material things, and yet these are symptoms rather than its cause. While there is need for systemic change, political will and collaboration across sectors in society to address problems and deliver concrete solutions urgently, there is also need to change attitudes and behaviour, at all levels – beginning in the family and home.

Policy to deal with disadvantage: how to unblock ‘corrosive disadvantage’ and unlock ‘fertile functioning’ in the South African context?

Public policy approaches to creating opportunities that lift the majority out of poverty and disadvantage in South Africa have clearly been inadequate. As Wolff explained, ‘undoing’ things that are broken does not necessarily fix them – abolishing ‘corrosive’ social structures does not equate or translate directly into creating ‘fertile’ structures. So what determines opportunities in life and what could change this effectively for those who are disadvantaged? There are clearly three categories to consider: personal abilities (strengths, skills, talents); external assets (wealth, income, family support, and your social network – external but personal); and, most importantly, the social structure in which you live. This is particularly pertinent in the South African context of inherited disadvantage – and advantage – perpetuated inter-generationally and affecting certain groups disproportionately. In South Africa, whatever your talents, a hostile social structure can – and often does – affect opportunities negatively. Social structures affect everyone, and many people in the same way, which means that changing these structures can benefit many people. While ‘corrosive disadvantage’ means that one problem can lead to or spiral into others, interventions in one area can also create ‘fertile advantages’.

Wolff posed further questions about whether or how we can apply the ideas of corrosive disadvantage and fertile advantage to external assets? Can we have fertile and corrosive social structures? What would be a fertile structural change in South Africa now? Using the example of land reform, undeniably very important, he questioned whether land reform can be transformational and liberate the masses in an era of agribusiness rather than subsistence farming, or whether it would merely recycle elites?

Ramphele asserted that it is time for citizens to demand respect, not as disadvantaged people, but as custodians of democracy. In order to realize the Bill of Human Rights enshrined in our Constitution, with specific commitments to the progressive realization of socio-economic rights for all, we need to go back to the drawing board and create momentum for change on structural issues, including:

  • Improved public services
  • Electoral reform
  • Overhaul of the education system
  • Promotion of entrepreneurial, artisanal and artistic skills
  • Transformation of extractive economic institutions to promote innovative sustainable development
  • Shift in mining industry from low-wage low-skill to training and social investment
  • Legal reform and effective implementation of anti-corruption and anti-competitive  measures
  • Legal protection for entrepreneurs from collusive action by lawyers, banks and others
  • Transformation of apartheid urban geography to ensure more equitable access to high quality public services, opportunities and resources. 

The point of focusing on fertile capabilities/functionings and corrosive disadvantages is to identify the best intervention points in the design and implementation of public policy. This is the ‘holy grail’ of social policy – to find effective interventions to stimulate advantage. Good examples in the context of South Africa would be a focus on early childhood development and quality education, along with promoting life skills and work readiness among school-going and unemployed youth.

In closing remarks, Professor Wolff stressed the need to consider both individual agency/people and institutions/structures in finding solutions to deal with disadvantage, and to draw on positive examples to inspire change. Madlala-Routledge and Ramphele both urged South Africans to become involved as active citizens and demand accountability from government. Ramphele argued that we must avoid focusing on the disadvantaged as the problem and rather focus on transforming the systems and the institutions that create disadvantage, in South Africa and globally. In this regard, a key investment would be early childhood interventions that provide an environment with positive values, particularly given the legacy of apartheid geography.

The aim of the PII at UCT is to stimulate discussion and share research to sharpen policies and promising strategies in overcoming poverty and inequality in South Africa. There is much important scholarship work being done at UCT, and elsewhere – but we will be measured by its impact and the strength of the partnerships we forge with other universities and research institutions, civil society and communities, practitioners and policy makers nationally.

In this seminar, the ‘holy grail’ of policy was posed as identifying how to unblock ‘corrosive disadvantage’ and unlock ‘fertile opportunities’ –  interventions that have the potential to address and overcome structural challenges. This ties in strongly with the thinking behind the C3 initiative – to harness the intellectual potential at universities and other research institutions, informed by the needs of and in collaboration with community partners and development practitioners , and engage with politicians at all local, provincial, national and NPC levels – to produce evidence and policy proposals targeting key issues that could address inequality and  reduce poverty.