If anyone is holding their breath in expectation of swift action against senior African National Congress (ANC) politicians tainted by corruption, they should probably sooner expect asphyxiation.

The bigger mistake is thinking that a crackdown on corruption, bad as it is, will remedy the country’s most threatening afflictions.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s candid acknowledgement of the ANC’s central role in corruption as ‘Accused Number 1’ has guaranteed that fraud, theft and malfeasance in South Africa are earning unprecedented attention.

But corruption pales into insignificance against the scale of the far greater problem of South Africa’s overlooked underclass, the jobless, homeless, poor and despairing, who number in the millions.

They are fittingly described in a new report by the Centre for Risk Analysis (CRA) as the ‘invisibles’.

The Invisibles: South Africa’s underclass is a survey of the lives of ‘the poorest people in society [who have] no jobs and few prospects, little or no education [and no] decent housing and services’.

CRA researchers Bheki Mahlobo and Thuthukani Ndebele make the point that ‘[m]iddle class and high net worth individuals usually occupy centre stage in public discourse, while the poor are often kept out of sight and out of mind’. These ‘invisibles’, they write, ‘form the majority of South Africa’s citizens by any reasonable measure. Even so, they are often voiceless in the economy and in politics.’

We can be sure that defeating corruption might ease their plight, but it won’t alter their destiny. And that destiny is ours, too; South Africans’ hopes of a stable, fair, just, free and prosperous future hinge on altering the fortunes of the poorest.

And, as Mahlobo and Ndebele argue: ‘In a world of precarity and poverty, only policies promoting growth, improved education and economic opportunities can lift many out of the underclass.’

Their report (compiled with Tamara Dimant, Simpe Jonas, Tawanda Makombo and Gerbrandt van Heerden) is a portrait of a society afflicted by low growth, poor education and limited opportunities, as the following outline illustrates. 

Unemployment, poverty, and welfare

The number of people who would like to work but do not have a job has risen from almost 6.5 million in 2008 to nearly 10.8 million in 2020. Just under 40% of the unemployed are young people aged between 25 and 34. Notably, millions among the youth who do not work are also not occupied with anything else. Around 8 million or some 40% of people aged between 15 and 34 are classified as NEETs — not in employment, education or training.

Following the imposition of a lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic in South Africa on 27 March 2020, social grants were topped up for the period May to October, while a new Social Relief of Distress Grant was introduced to assist people in dire need. In June alone, the total value of the different types of social grants amounted to R20.2 billion. This is not sustainable in the long term. Furthermore, the various grants are of relatively low monthly value — ranging between R350 and

R1 800.


Even as access to education has increased markedly—the number of people aged 20 and above with no schooling almost halved between 2002 and 2018, from a little over 3 million to just above 1.5 million—the output at school level gives cause for concern. A key indicator of poor performance —pupil culling— stands out in the FET Band (grades 10 to 12), suggesting that the lower grades do not adequately prepare pupils for completion. For instance, about 1 million grade 10 pupils were enrolled in 2017, but fewer than half sat for their matric exams in 2019. Less than a fifth did well enough to be able to study for a bachelor’s degree at university, while a mere 4% obtained a 50%+ mark in mathematics.

Considering the fact that a higher-level qualification improves prospects for employment — the labour absorption rate (the proportion of people who are employed) for those with no schooling is only 31%, compared to 74% for people with a tertiary education — inadequate and poor-quality education sees millions facing bleak future prospects.

Living conditions

Despite significant service delivery improvements over the years, multitudes of South Africa’s people continue to face numerous difficulties. Almost 2.2 million households still live in informal dwellings, over 2.6 million are without electricity and 1.8 million have no access to piped water. A ‘crisis of rising expectations’ can be seen, in which those who have not benefited from initial service delivery successes are frustrated, leading to political unrest and violence. Combined with an economic downturn, the impact is significant.

The Institute for Security Studies recorded more than 500 protests countrywide for the period April to July 2020, and these were mainly triggered by the policing of lockdown restrictions, labour issues, and problems relating to electricity supply. More mass action is likely in the near future.

Children too must contend with a fair share of challenges. Only a third of them live in the same household as both of their biological parents and almost a fifth live with neither parent — in child-headed households, in care homes, with foster parents or with relatives. They are particularly vulnerable to society’s numerous social ills.

The writers point out that the underclass ‘accounts for a sizeable share of South Africa’s population and it would be folly to ignore this category, which is made up mostly of young people’.

In an economy that is ‘barely growing’, providing welfare ‘is becoming increasingly unsustainable and has not succeeded in lifting people out of the underclass’.

Only urgently implemented structural reforms could ‘bring the country back to a positive trajectory’.

The diagnosis is plain enough, but so are the remedies, as the report makes clear: 

• Raising economic growth and expanding fixed investment

Economic growth is critical as it increases income levels, expands domestic markets, boosts government revenues, and generates new jobs. South Africa needs large sums of both foreign direct investment and domestic investment. This can only be achieved in an environment where the property rights of private investors are guaranteed. This would primarily mean abandoning any notion of expropriation without compensation.

• Translating increased growth into increased employment

Achieving higher levels of employment requires wide-ranging deregulation in the labour market, thus removing barriers to entry for young and low-skilled individuals. A rise in low-wage employment would result in people dependent on social grants having an additional source of income. And those with higher paying jobs would have fewer dependants to support.

• Building and maintaining essential infrastructure

If the growth rate were to increase to about 7%, South Africa’s economy would double in size within ten years and the average GDP per capita would soar. To reach this level of economic growth, available infrastructure will have to be greatly expanded and existing infrastructure better managed and maintained.

This is especially true for electricity and transport infrastructure. Privatisation will help to bring in some of the revenue needed to fund new infrastructure, but this is unlikely to be enough. Therefore, successful public-private partnerships can be implemented to deliver/manage new and existing infrastructure.

• Helping the disadvantaged climb the economic ladder

Emphasis must be placed on the inputs needed to empower the poor, rather than on meeting racial targets. A policy such as Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged (EED) recognises and rewards business for expanding opportunities through direct investment, job creation, contributing to tax revenues and export earnings, topping up venture capital funds, appointing staff on a ‘wide’ definition of merit (which takes account of disadvantage), and entering effective public-private partnerships to improve education, healthcare and housing and to maintain and expand economic infrastructure.

Banishing the corrupt from the ruling party (even jailing them) will do more for the material changes on which a brighter future for the worst-off depends than indulging in displays of supposed racial solidarity or, through support for ‘decolonisation’, redacting the historical record to contrive more enchanting origins of modernity.    

It is something of an indictment of democratic South Africa that the new ideas and new policies capable of delivering better schooling, housing and healthcare, more jobs, more investment and more opportunities are neither lacking nor difficult to implement.

More worrying by far than the breathless excitement about the ANC leadership’s anxiety about corruption is that few are holding their breath in anticipation of the reforms without which South Africa’s ‘invisibles’ will remain overlooked and neglected.

The cost of this negligence, as long as it lasts, stands to be measured in growing social instability, declining prosperity, shrinking opportunity, and a loss of talent and expertise to emigration.

In that sense, we are all invisibles, a society whose gravest challenges continue to be unaddressed, and so continue to grow, impinging on everyone. The burden weighs heaviest on the poor, but the impoverishment is indiscriminate.

[Picture: Elleithyia from Pixabay]

If you like what you have just read, subscribe to the Daily Friend


  1. Insightful and downright scary.
    Now if only the very same invisibles could be made to understand that, by continuing to vote for the ANC, they are indeed their own victims …

  2. It all sounds so easy. If so, why is it so difficult to implement?

    The restructured economy will provide no funds to feed the patronage bloated few. Why would the wealthy comrade, provided for by cadre deployment and rigged tenders, give these up in favour of saving the ‘invisible’? Why would the ANC itself forego the flow of kick back and rent funds it receives from the connected black empowered companies? Why would the consultant that charges exorbitant fees to fill the black empowered capacity gap give this up? Would the threat of (or actual jail time) be sufficient motivation? Yengeni and Schaik’s treatment would indicate not.

    The simple fact is that not only has the state been ‘captured’, the entire economy is captured in an intricate web of systemic corruption far beyond just ANC comrades and deployed cadres.
    Is this the reason any opposition party, especially the DA, is criticised and sabotaged at every turn in the mainstream media?

    Too many have too much to lose in a restructured economy. Those who may gain, are as the report says, invisible.

  3. I too am one of the invisibles (white, male, forties, unemployed for more than five and a half years, have not received any help from the government) until another invisible thinks I’m rich just because of the colour of my skin and asks for money. I can see which way this country is going and the conclusion is simple- the best way to get out of this situation is to get out of the country because the policies which will help SA to grow will not be implemented while the ANC is in power and EFF is a threat on the horizon.

  4. Could not agree more with other comments . Something that I read many years ago came to mind when I read the article namely , “If you don’t take care of the poor constructively , the poor will take care of you destructively “. This is now starting to play out in a very profound manner .

    How do we address this massive challenge ? Education, education and more education ! Get involved at the lowest level and do some reading at a local ECD centre.

    Secondly forget low-cost housing and adopt a “Site and Service ” policy where stands are supplied with basic services ( water , electricity , sewerage and refuse removal ). Add to this a basic raft foundation with an approved plan attached to the package. Doing it this way you immediately add human dignity to four families instead of building one RDP house , while the other three families have to wait for another 20 years !! Our people are so innovative when it comes to building houses, even if over a number of years , but with a proper floor in place you immediately overcome the wet winter conditions which is so endemic in our informal settlements.

    Thirdly be honest and admit openly that we can NEVER supply everybody with a free house.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here