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Democracy and distribution in highly unequal economies: the case of South Africa

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 October 2001

Nicoli Nattrass
School of Economics, University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Jeremy Seekings
Departments of Politics & Sociology, University of Cape Town.


Given that incomes in South Africa are distributed very unequally, it might be expected that the establishment of representative democracy would result in the adoption of redistributive policies. Yet overall inequality has not declined since 1994. The electoral and party system provides uneven pressure for redistribution. The fact that poor South Africans have the vote ensures that some areas of public policy do help the poor. The post-apartheid government not only inherited a surprisingly redistributive set of social policies (welfare, education and health care), but has made changes that entail even more redistribution. But these policies do little to help a core section of the poor in South Africa: the unemployed, and especially households in which no one is working. Other public policies serve to disadvantage this marginalised constituency: labour market and other economic policies serve to steer the economy down a growth path that shuts out many of the unskilled and unemployed. The workings of these policies remain opaque, making it unlikely that poor citizens will use their vote to effect necessary policy reforms.

Research Article
© 2001 Cambridge University Press

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