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Poverty, Inequality and Patronage

Project Leader: Tony Trew

Project Coordinator: Leslie Dikeni

Faculty of Political Economy
Project started

August 08 2011

Estimated end date:

November 12 2013



MISTRA’s research project on Poverty, Inequality and Patronage is one of the Institute’s 8 Inaugural research projects. The study examines patronage politics within the context of local government to assess how it contributes to some of the problems bedeviling local government politics, and how poverty and inequality relate to political patronage.

The establishment of local government structures and systems of accountability are among some of attempts at formalising democracy at a local level over the past 17 years. As democratic local government has matured, so have informal relationships between citizens and this sphere of government congealed – ranging from informal recruitment and employment practices, conduct of the councillors and municipal employees, and practices to garner political support and reward, to local community protests.  

Nineteen years into democratic South Africa, however, it is apparent that local government is facing strain in many areas of the country. Numerous surveys, over different periods, indicate that local government is the least trusted of all spheres of government. Local protests over poor delivery of social services have become a recurrent feature in many communities. 

MISTRA’s research project on Poverty, Inequality and Patronage seeks to provide a profile of socio-economic life in South Africa’s various communities as experienced not only by locals, but also by foreign-born residents. Among the issues examined by the research, include:

·       What survivalist strategies do the poor adopt to manoeuvre the patronage minefield?

·       How do they conduct themselves in relation to the often selective enforcement of municipal by-laws, which itself creates fertile ground for patronage and corruption?

·       Where local residents come into conflict with foreign-born nationals or even with migrants from other parts of the country – is this reflective of a shared grievance among the majority?

·       How do political parties discourage or entrench patronage politics and, in turn, what effect is this having on the parties themselves? 

This study thus seeks not only to gain deeper insight into the causes, manifestation and impact of patronage politics, but also to examine how official measures at curbing the phenomenon have fared. In other words, the aims are to understand the specific nature and various forms of patronage politics; the conditions under which it thrives (or disappears); and its specific impact on the structures of governance, political culture, and the citizenry.

Specifically, the study examines how patronage politics articulates with conditions of poverty. While not assuming causality between poverty and patronage in either direction, the study examines whether the prevalence of patronage in specific communities had anything to do with the fact that poor people are less organised or unable to access state services independent of the corrupt intermediary of public officials?  If indeed it was so, the study then sets out to probe how poor people could best respond to these challenges.

The study comprises qualitative methodology; specifically, interviews conducted with individuals and groups, and also with focus groups. Moreover, a case study approach was used, selecting five research sites, spread out over four of South Africa’s provinces, namely the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Gauteng and Free State. Fieldwork was conducted over a period of approximately 18 months beginning around October 2010 and ending in July 2012. Focus group interviews followed in the last half of 2012.

The research report was released as a publication, entitled "Patronage Politics Divides Us: A Study of Poverty, Patronage and Inequality in South Africa" on 12th November 2013.

Click here to view a summary of the report: Summary of the Poverty Patronage Inequality report.pdfSummary of the Poverty Patronage Inequality report.pdf

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