Deepening Democracy through Access to Information
Home / Opinion / Other Opinions RSS ← Back
Africa|Business|Education|Environment|Financial|Housing|Resources|System|Africa|South Africa|Institute Of Race Relations|SA Institute Of Race Relations|Christian Houle|Terence Corrigan

Email this article

separate emails by commas, maximum limit of 4 addresses

Verification Image. Please refresh the page if you cannot see this image.

Sponsored by


Article Enquiry

Social mobility: South Africa’s underestimated challenge

Verification Image. Please refresh the page if you cannot see this image.

Embed Video

Social mobility: South Africa’s underestimated challenge

14th November 2017


Font size: -+

‘Protesting’ is a long-standing part of South Africa’s political culture, and not an altogether negative one – it is a right in a democratic society, and denotes an engaged citizenry. But the surge in the bitter and often violent confrontations between citizens and the state, or between opposing groups within society, speaks to something deeply concerning at the heart of South African society, its economy, and its politics.

Central to this is the view that, articulated by angry intellectuals and activists, as well as politicians of various stripes that democracy has failed.  In the words of a Mail and Guardian editorial from earlier this year: ‘Protests show that nothing has changed’. Not only is poverty the lot of millions, but extreme inequalities impose unbearable stresses on the country. Murmurs are regularly heard about how South Africa is steaming towards an irredeemable breaking-point – with consequences, in that quintessentially South African phrase, too ghastly to contemplate.


A recent study by American academic Christian Houle provides a valuable perspective on this. Rather than focussing on the well-recognised impact of poverty and inequality in motivating instability and conflict, he examines the effects of social mobility – the ability of people to advance in wealth and social stature across time. Using information from 102 countries, he concludes that there was a strong relationship between a lack of social mobility and socio-political instability.

Those willing to take their grievances onto the streets (or even to press them through the barrel of a gun) may not be motivated solely by existing injustices, but equally by the prospects that the future will be no better than the present. Indeed, Houle suggests that analysts may be mistaking frustrations at social immobility for frustrations at inequality.


There are loud echoes of this in South Africa. Of course, many South Africans – many black South Africans, whose life options were severely undermined by past policies – have made great strides in the economy since the transition. This is a dynamic that needs to be recognised. Too many, however, have not. Perhaps nothing signifies the frustration caused by arrested social mobility as the protest actions that have rocked university campuses in recent years. This is unsurprising: university students are an aspirant elite, and a tertiary education has long been viewed as the key to a prosperous, high-status future. Yet for many, it proves to be a mirage. From inadequate preparation in the school system, to the stresses of meeting financial commitments, to the limited work opportunities that graduates will find (aggravated by a large debt burden), a university experience can be a bitter one indeed.  

A placard held up at a campus demonstration declaimed: ‘Our parents were sold dreams in 1994… we are just here for the refund.’ In the long run, pessimism about life prospects may be more damaging to South African society than anger at material deprivation or the failings of governance – as serious as the latter are. Where people foresee no possibility for advancement, little practical value in education or effort, disillusionment and rejection of the democratic order may well follow. Combined with a burgeoning population of young people unable to find their way in the world, and with political entrepreneurs able to harness their frustration, the situation can rapidly become combustible. It certainly has been elsewhere in the world. Thus, Prof Houle comments: ‘Low relative mobility creates a large pool of individuals willing to join a conflict in exchange for a meagre salary and access to spoils. When relative mobility is high, however, the opportunity cost of potential recruits—and thus the cost of mobilizing a large fighting force—is larger.’

Offering South Africa’s disadvantaged avenues for mobility needs to be seen as a critical priority. So far, this has not been the case. Rather, it has stressed measures to achieve racial redistribution, such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE – to which the ‘Broad Based’ descriptor was later added), and affirmative action, along with welfare measures, such as social grants and housing provision, to alleviate the worst impacts of poverty.

It’s questionable how effective this has been. BEE has been widely criticised for having made a small group of people very wealthy – with an emphasis on those with the right backgrounds and connections to begin with – while offering little to those most in need of upliftment. Indeed, there is some evidence that BEE has become a disincentive for the economic growth that is necessary to fuel expanding opportunities. And the trajectory of South Africa’s welfare measures has been to alleviate deprivation rather than to empower South Africa’s disadvantaged.

If South Africa is to create the future that its people aspire to – in a very real sense, redeeming the promise of ‘a better life for all’ – a new approach is called for. This must consciously promote social mobility.

The Institute of Race Relations has long called for such a change: a policy of Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantage (EED). Its focus is on South Africa’s poor, irrespective of colour, and on providing them with the means for their own upliftment. It does not advocate a ‘hands-off’ approach by government; far from it. Rather, EED envisages government making sensible, achievable interventions to enhance the people’s ability to pursue their goals.

Radical in the literal sense of dealing with the ‘roots’ of the issue, its starting point is that the rudiments of the solution to South Africa’s socio-economic malaise lies in four key areas: economic growth; expanding employment; excellent education; and entrepreneurship.

EED proposes reforming the country’s regulatory system so as to make doing business and employing people easier (a large body of research has shown the damaging impact of an ill-thought out regulatory burden on small enterprises). Concurrently, it advocates putting incentives and resources in place to help South Africa’s poor to benefit from this economic expansion.

Thus, rather than the complex and changeable BEE scorecards, EED proposes awarding points for companies’ contributions to the economy and to society. It would recognise their efforts at growth and investment, at increasing wages, at protecting the environment and at supporting community upliftment efforts. In doing so, companies would have every incentive to undertake precisely those activities that promote growth and economic opportunity.

More importantly for the country’s citizens, the EED framework foresees dispensing with race as a proxy for disadvantage, identifying beneficiaries according to objective measures of socio-economic deprivation, such as level of income. Driving the social mobility of South Africa’s poor – of all races – would become the primary consideration of policy. It would, for example, offer education vouchers to give poor people choice in the schools their children attend, rather than being compelled to attend often faltering local public institutions. Housing vouchers, meanwhile, would put resources to acquire and own property firmly in the hands of poor people – rather than confining them to interminable waiting lists and providing houses without title.

EED is conceived as an alternative to the current path: rather than a burden on business and a hindrance to people’s prospects, EED would be an engine for growth and for mobility. It has faith in the ability of South Africa’s people to manage their own destinies and pursue their own aspirations.

More than anything, it is a deeply optimistic vision that holds that ‘everything can change’, and that protesting about the shortcomings of South Africa’s democracy might give way to celebration of its achievements.

Written by Terence Corrigan, a policy fellow at the SA Institute of Race Relations. The Institute’s EED policy can be accessed here.


To subscribe email or click here
To advertise email or click here

Comment Guidelines

About is a product of Creamer Media.

Other Creamer Media Products include:
Engineering News
Mining Weekly
Research Channel Africa

Read more


We offer a variety of subscriptions to our Magazine, Website, PDF Reports and our photo library.

Subscriptions are available via the Creamer Media Store.

View store


Advertising on is an effective way to build and consolidate a company's profile among clients and prospective clients. Email

View options
Free daily email newsletter Register Now