Why Poverty?



In January this year, between 8-10 protestors were killed by the police in service delivery protests, four of them simply for rising up to demand a most basic right – water. This is a contravention of human rights on all levels and while it sent shock waves through poor black working class and marginalized communities, the broader middle class did not react at all.

In fact, the silence from South Africa’s middle class was resounding and mystifying. Instead of outrage they have chosen to ignore a gross violation of human rights and even blame the poor for these deaths. Many wrote as much in the comments beneath more progressive articles on the matter and expressed their disdain and contempt for marginalised people in commentary dripping in derision.

Comments, such as this one found beneath an article in The Star newspaper asking why the middle class lacks empathy for the poor, exemplify the everyday disapproving attitudes that the middle class generally feel for the disenfranchised masses.

One ‘Law_of_the_jungle Ash’ had the following to say:

Rubbish!!! People are poor because they aren’t smart about their life. They have children when they can’t afford children, they riot instead of going to school and they look for excuses like apartheid and structures for the reason instead of looking at themselves. There are many black lawyers and doctors etc. that got these degrees in South Africa during apartheid – how do you think they did that? They worked hard and made sacrifices just like anybody else. The opportunities were there for anybody who could be bothered to take advantage of them. They are not victims, they just have a victim mentality and until they lose that, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get on with it, they will remain victims forever and live off handouts.

This is a common response to issues pertaining to the poor. It reveals a total disconnect between the middle class and the economically marginalised – but more tellingly, between history, contemporary politics and poverty. It is as if poverty happens in a vacuum and is indeed an extension of the oft referred to “natural behavioral traits of Black folk who are lazy, take no responsibility for themselves and still have the temerity to blame a system of colonialism and apartheid for their poverty”.

Middle class narratives on the poor are highly problematic in a society like South Africa where huge class cleavages exist between the rich and the poor. While this is certainly not true of everyone in this class, for the most part, middle class people buy into the same metanarrative about the poor.

This metanarrative is a storyline that creates a definite “us and them” scenario, which is based on keeping middle class comfort zones definitively separate to the economic hell-holes that marginalized communities are forced to endure. The core belief is that “they” are “lazy” and their poverty is caused by their laziness just as wealth is caused by hard work.

Around this core belief many other secondary storylines are developed and these are steeped in common sense dogmas that sound like truth and are often rendered in reasonable and earnest terms. Yet when unpacked, these common sense beliefs are anything but benign. Instead, they are based on explicit unconstructive racialised and classist stereotypes that contain multiple judgments and untruths.

It would seem that the non-politicised majority in the middle class avoids critical engagement on the structural issues that create inequality and show little interest in understanding the intersections between racism, privilege and poverty.

This is “depoliticized liberalism”. It exists in an increasingly capitalised system that claims to embrace multiculturalism, diversity and equality. But this “equality” is clearly not an everyday reality, as racist and classist incidents that oppress the poor continue to manifest on our social landscape. Such inequality is evidenced in the police killings of protestors in service delivery protests. Here we witness structural racism and the abuse of classist power at its zenith when protestors who mobilise for basic services and the right to claim their dignity, in a system that promises this dignity to all, get killed by the police for doing so.

The larger middle class, seemingly, do not perceive this as a human rights transgression. There is no empathy and outrage for the deaths of people at the hands of the state. Instead there is a ‘culture of consent’ in which the middle class will generally agree that the state acted within its constitutional mandate and for the good of the security of the country and their individual safety.

You can be sure though that if the people shot were not poor and black, the response would have been one of outrage and identification, instead of disdain and open contempt.

The middle class discourse is one that utterly believes that the poor need to be policed at every level of their lives, including their reproductive lives. They should not engage in sexual and reproductive activities. They should not want or need children because they cannot feed them. They should really, it would seem, become extinct so that they are no longer a problem to the hardworking, decent and moral middle class.

In this scenario, colonisers and the history of appropriation of land and resources via apartheid are blameless. Foreign investors are also let off the hook for their exploitation and abuse of cheap labour. And though government plays into the hands of business, favouring the corporate sector over the poor, they alone, are blamed for bad governance. The only time government will be praised by this class is when they have adequately policed and brutalised the poor.

At the same time, the capitalist anti-poor metanarrative overarches the equality narrative and becomes a new and biased form of human rights.  In this framework, individual bourgeois rights take precedence over the rights of so-called marauding and dangerous poor people. This is the basis for middle-class hegemony, which remains completely separate and insular to poor people’s rights.

And contained within this hegemony is a discourse verging on fascism – one that could be said to comprise the makings of a genocidal construct. It is a dehumanizing and dangerous discourse that strips the poor of their dignity and humanity. It objectifies the poor into empty soulless beings that probably do not have the same wants, needs, desires, dreams and aspirations as any other human being. It is a dangerous discourse based on hate and yet it permeates so-called liberal public spaces, disguised in reasonable and honest terms.

This master narrative is nothing less than a full-frontal discursive war against the poor of our land.


These engagements are organized for solidarity struggle groups, activist, journalists, filmmakers, study groups and members of the public to witness and unpack the reality of the marginalization, poverty and oppression that 48% of our in South African population is forced to endure. The live lecture given on this tour is done within the framework of social justice and aims to facilitate a shift in public consciousness and attitudes towards the poor and and the struggles of the poor. Members of the communities are actively engaged in these excursions. (see below)

Social justice means the organizing towards justice and equality in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges between all groups within a society, with a special focus on organizing around the issues of the oppressed. These engagements facilitate solidarity networks between struggles globally and locally.

Oppression is multifaceted and involves:

  • “Exploitation: the act of using people’s labors to produce profit while not compensating them fairly.
  • Marginalization: the act of relegating or confining a group of people to a lower social standing or outer limit or edge of society.
  • Powerlessness: lack of social authority and power- lack of access to justice – lack of decision making powers because of ruling class domination.
  • Cultural Imperialism: involves taking the culture of the ruling class and establishing it as the norm. The groups that have power in society control how the people in that society interpret and communicate. In the  South Africa this would be the white population and the elite government and corporate class.
  • Violence:  probably the most obvious and visible form of oppression. Members of some groups live with the knowledge that they must fear random, unprovoked attacks on their persons or property. These attacks do not necessarily need a motive but are intended to damage, humiliate, or destroy the person. ” Marikana is one such case.

Source Material:


The Five Faces of Oppression-Read full document here.

The ten layers of oppression for the black and poor in South Africa.  Read here.

Social justice is central to issues in South Africa as marginalised communities are subject to corporate abuses, discrimination and deprivation on a large scale.  Though the Constitution guarantees equality for all no matter what gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability this is not the reality.  The reality is that 48% of our population live in abject poverty on less that $1.50 per day.  There is a dire lack of adequate sanitation and housing and food security is fast becoming a major issue for poor people.  Equal access to health and education also remains a major problem.

These solidarity engagements take you on a real journey into the heart of South Africa’s marginalized society. We do not go to gawk at poor people but to really engage with the issues of poverty and oppression that South Africa’s black and poor population is up against.  From living down wind and down stream from polluting factories, to lack of sanitation, to being forced to live on uranium contaminated land – you will bear witness to this disgraceful abuse of human dignity by both state and corporates.

Please note:  In all the communities we visit Media for Justice has a longstanding relationship with the residents and  have been involved in the discussions regarding these excursions and whether they would work for communities and their struggles.  Community members who have offered their time in terms of guiding the groups of  journalists, filmmakers and researchers are paid a fee.  Taxi’s are hired from within the communities and lunches are made by community members.  This money is generated into a petty cash for emergency funds around struggles.  This is a form of advocacy as shared narratives ensure that these stories are not simply ignored or not faced full-on for fear of being labeled ‘poverty porn’.  These are solidarity engagements – people have full agency and are not objectified.  They seek to have their voices heard – their struggles recognised and encourage people outside of the poverty zones to join their struggles in solidarity.  These excursions also seek to undo the damage of mainstream media in which people are represented in sound bytes and their full narratives never heard.

Our groups usually consist of study groups, solidarity movements, journalists and activists.  We try to encourage SA citizens to join these engagements so that they may shift their negative bias about why poverty exists, what it means to be poor and the systemic issues that create poverty and social issues. In this way we may begin to add to a critical mass of middle class citizens who are willing to join the struggles of the poor in solidarity.  There are intersections between the struggles of the poor and the struggles of the middle class in a corporatocracy such as South Africa and we seek to educate the middleclass on these intersections in order to mobilise them into action.

Veteran Social justice activist, Sipho Singiswa will be giving a live lecture on South African politics all the way.

His lecture covers:

  • What social justice is
  • What neoliberalism is and how this has impacted on the poor
  • What rights the poor are guaranteed and how their reality contradicts their constitutional rights
  • We look at corporate environmental and government transgressions against the poor
  • Our geographical tours will be out together according to your needs.