Twenty years of democracy do not seem to have brought a change in the South African poverty situation. Walking in villages and townships, one cannot miss people who scavenge for food in dustbins and refuse dumping areas, even fighting with dogs looking for the same “treasure”. The majority of these people stay in informal settlements. This situation constitutes a serious community problem as the houses of people living near these houses frequently get broken into and their possessions stolen. Street corners in cities are also full of those who beg for donations. This article highlights the possible definition, meaning, implications, causes and possible action on the part of the church.


What is village and township poverty?

It is difficult if not impossible to define poverty in a way that covers all dimensions. For the sake of having some clarity for ourselves regarding village and township poverty, an attempt at a definition and explanation is made. It seems logical to view village and township poverty as deficiency and lack in very basic needs. This seems to be a central understanding of village and township poverty. The following definition by May & Govender (1998:27) seems to express the same understanding: “... the inability of individuals, households, or entire communities to command sufficient resources to satisfy a socially accepted minimum standard of living.”


The meaning of poverty however, cannot be limited to a particular definition because any meaningful understanding of poverty is best expressed in terms of the poor’s articulation of their own experiences thereof. According to Wilson and Ramphele (1989:67), for example, poverty means to many people in South Africa, “Not knowing where their next meal is coming from, or fearing eviction from their meagre dwelling because they cannot pay the basic rental. There is also fear that the breadwinner will lose his or her job.”


For that reason, in the HSRC Review Vol. 4 No 4 November 2006, the understanding of poverty is determined by “assessing people’s access to enough food and income to cater for all their household needs.” The focus in this understanding of poverty is on people’s ability to secure basic necessities.


The above definitions refer to, a) lack of basic needs; b) not having certainty about the availability of food, accommodation and job; and c) being unable to afford the cost of one’s accommodation or living space. Today however, we have another category of the poor who are totally homeless and sleep in the open, under bridges and other despicable places. They are people who seem not to have any family and who live by scavenging for food in dustbins and refuse dumping areas. For this group, it is not a question of inability to afford but the one of being totally empty of any material means of existence. These should be those poor people who are referred to as the poorest of the poor.


The following are according to May & Govender (1998:3-4) some characteristics attributed by public opinion to poverty:

  • Alienation from the community. The poor become alienated from the rest of the community. The aged live in tiny rooms, often with no contact with their children and relatives. Elderly people who are not cared for by younger relatives are considered “poor.”

  • Lack of food. When people have too little food to feed their families or themselves, they are living in poverty.

  • Too many people living in a small room or house. If there are too many occupants for the available living space and when there are too many children, this is regarded as poverty.

  • Lack of clean water and basic forms of energy. People who do not have electricity, gas, or coal for cooking and heating and who have to walk many kilometres to gather firewood or fetch drinking water are considered poor.

  • Lack of job opportunities. The poor consider the absence of any remunerated work or the fact that they are underpaid as the cause of their poverty.

  • Break-up of families. Impoverished homes are often characterised by absent fathers or children who are separated from their parents because the latter cannot care for them.

The above characteristics reveal the potential that poverty has of inflicting deeper hurt to poor people. It causes poor people to have in particular negative feelings and experiences. Poor people have feelings of inferiority and therefore of worthlessness. This is caused by the experience of inequality in relation to other citizens. Indicators of inequality according to Wilson & Ramphele (1989:100-152) are:

  • Diseases caused by bad conditions and circumstances. Because of lack of proper food, poor people, especially the children are undernourished. Diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, gastroenteritis and many others are rife among people living in impoverished social circumstances.

  • Lack of proper housing has led to the emergence of informal settlements around cities and towns. Living conditions in these communities are appalling. In addition to crime, sexual exploitation and rape, periodic fires and floods destroy informal settlers’ meagre belongings.

  • Lack of literacy and education. Lack of education and consequent illiteracy are common among poor people.

  • Helplessness and vulnerability. Poor people feel totally helpless to do anything about their situation. They are unable to escape from the vicious circle of poverty, known as poverty trap. They are unable to derive any benefit from such asserts as they may possess (May & Govender 1998:44). They are also exposed to exploitation by unscrupulous people and criminals and they live in constant insecurity and fear. They are vulnerable to addictions such as alcohol abuse. Worst of all, they feel powerless to do anything about these things.  

It is clear that the above feelings are evidence of demeaning, shaming and dehumanising conditions as a result of poverty. To have considerable numbers of people in such conditions is bound to have a negative impact on the nation. The big Coalition (the coalition of organisations that campaign for a basic income grant) estimates the number of the poor to at least 22 million (AfricaFocus Bulletin Nov 29, 2004).


Causes of poverty

The legacy of the previous government’s apartheid policies turned blacks (including coloureds and Indians; with black Africans being the worst affected) into a self-hating race of poor people. Other causes include lack of education, literacy and job skills. Unemployment as a result of lack of job opportunities constitutes a serious cause of poverty. There is also exploitation by some employers who pay slave wages – which renders even working people poor.

Suggested action on the part of the church

The church should, a) be sufficiently informed about the government’s poverty alleviation programmes, support and strongly campaign for those government initiatives that she regards as life-giving like the Expanded Public Works Programme, Basic Income Grant (I am not implying that these programmes are life-giving, I am only giving them as examples); b) encourage the government to act against its corrupt officials and employees who through fraudulent means deprive the poor of their right to own RDP houses; c) the church should become a diaconal body whose entire focus should be a humble life of committed service of caring and sharing. d) In order to be truly serviceable, the church needs to work hard at activating and employing the principle of the priesthood of all the believers so that the whole body participates in benevolent activities to the benefit of the poor and vulnerable. e) The church, especially the black church should evoke and engender in her members, the spirit and practice of Ubuntu which refers to both, mutual love and respect as well as mutual caring and sharing. The value of Ubuntu caring and sharing is that it has the ability to instil the spirit of ploughing back those who receive assistance. f) The possibility should be explored of setting up the church’s construction companies and other kinds of companies that will provide employment albeit to a small number of people. It should also be possible for the church to at its theological training also provide building and other skills that can help future ministers make ends meet while working in congregations. g) The church should equip her members in financial discipline so that they do not find themselves in serious debts. h) Co-operation between churches in benevolent service projects will go a long way towards enabling the church to be of service to the poor and other communities.



This article has attempted to define and explain poverty, its meaning, implications, causes and possible action on the part of the church. The MRCC needs in addition to focussing on quantitative and qualitative growth, maximising fundraising efforts and strengthening ecumenical relations also seriously participating in community relief and development endeavours. By so doing, the church will become Christ to the poor and vulnerable. Service to the poor should form the heart of the church’s life and work.  

By Matsobane J Manala