Do we talk it like it is – take the test!


By Steuart Pennington

Subject: Poverty, inequality and unemployment

A few weeks ago I invited you to take a test of eight questions to check whether your perceptions matched the reality of life in South Africa.

I mentioned that out of the 38 countries that participated in this Ipsos survey South Africans ranked worst in terms of being most wrong in their reply

Take the test yourself

I had calls to do the same this week in respect of the way we talk about poverty, inequality and unemployment in response to a question from my mate Fred.


Dear Fred

Yes, I fear that we do use the terms poverty, inequality and unemployment as if we are all agreed on the definitions and the accompanying measures, but are we?


STATS SA tells is that 55% of South Africans live in abject poverty. The Economist defines poverty as “a short and wretched life with little or no access to regular shelter, potable water, reliable electricity, adequate education, basic nutrition and sufficient income to provide for the simplest of human essentials.”

How many South Africans live in that space?

STATS SA also tells us that there are 13.5 million formal dwellings accommodating roughly 48m citizens; 92% have access to electricity, 86% to potable water, all have cell phones, 84% have colour TV’s, children receive free education and food at school, and some 17 million South Africans receive social grants.

Are we not describing a percentage of the population that are ‘poor’ rather than living in ‘abject poverty’?

Using the Economist definition above some analysts would argue that less than 5% of South Africans live in abject poverty.


SA is supposed to have the worst GINI co-efficient ‘in the world’ (how we love that phrase). The GINI co-efficient is a measure of the gap between the wealthy and the poor. 1 = the wealthy have it all, 0 = everyone has the same. SA’s GINI co-efficient is 0.63. The GINI co-efficient is not a measure of poverty. However, the calculators of the GINI coefficient do not factor in any of the above STATS SA Social delivery numbers in respect of the measure of inequality, they use income only. Is income the only legitimate measure of inequality, surely our social delivery numbers have a value?


The UCT Unilever Institute tells us that of the 8 million citizens ‘officially’ unemployed some 6.4 million are engaged in the informal sector which is estimated to be growing at 5% and worth some R850 billion per annum +/- 23% of GDP at least. The Institute reckons that in the average township one in every four houses is engaged in entrepreneurial endeavour, excluding backroom rentals.

Are those engaged in the informal sector not working? They may tell Census/SARS people that, they may even hide away. ?

I’m not for one minute suggesting that poverty, inequality and unemployment are not critical challenges facing South Africa.

But, agreed definitions and accurate measures are critical components in building an informed, balanced and accurate narrative.

Do you agree?

Hope it is lekker there by you in CT, come and visit if you need a shower!

Below is the IPSOS table