Apartheid and Rural Poverty

Apartheid’s planning and social engineering stratified the majority of the South African population, disallowing them opportunities and the means to uplift themselves from the poverty that, for the most part, apartheid had caused. For a myriad of reasons, that would need their own paper to explain adequately, apartheid planners systematically forced a large portion of the population into rural poverty. This essay will be examining how the initial removals from urban areas caused and exacerbated this rural poverty, how attempts to eliminate this poverty were blocked by state intervention and how state action further impoverished the reserves. Fundamentally, apartheid planning restricted the natural responses to poverty that would have allowed communities and families to uplift themselves, not only restricting the solution to rural poverty, but causing it.

The forced removal of blacks from urban areas caused social despondency, overcrowding of reserves and the overstrain of resources. Black families were forcibly removed for reasons ranging from the centralisation of black populations to the idea that blacks had no place in the urban economy.[1] Pass laws and other restrictions were used to push people into reserves.[2] Resistance was squashed with the threat of violence, or actual violence in the form of the destruction of property and brutality.[3] These forced removals caused social strain on families, especially the elderly, who were forced out of areas to which they had grown attached. Communities and families were split up and the overcrowding of the reserves caused a fundamental shift in the household and community structure.[4] Reserves were already overcrowded, but the large influx of newly removed families put extra strain on resources and opportunities. In the instance of Transkei, large population growth destroyed attempts at local economic planning.[5] Populations used to better amenities had to adapt to their new environment. An example would be the forced removal of the people of Ga-Tlhose, who were removed to Bophuthatswana.[6] Their previous home enjoyed fertile land for agriculture, but the new area was unable to easily take crops. With the increased population, this put an even harsher strain on resources. Reserves also didn’t enjoy the necessary amount of public amenities or economic opportunities. Forcefully removed people struggled to improve their lot due to the lack of necessary amenities or wealth creation opportunities.[7]

Natural responses to poverty were not allowed, as state policy restricted efforts to move from poverty stricken areas (to alleviate overcrowding) or seek out better wealth opportunities in the cities. The poverty of the reserves, created by apartheid planning, pushed blacks into urban areas, while the state tried to restrict them from entry and actively push them back into the reserves.[8] Reserves didn’t possess the necessary economic opportunities to sustain their population. Nearly half of all men were migrant workers, working in ‘white’ South Africa to bring back a subsistence wage to feed their families.[9] Migrant labour caused severe social problems, as families were left without fathers and migrant workers lived in hostels that bred resentment and despair. In later decades, the phenomenon of ‘frontier commuters’ became apparent, with many blacks commuting from reserves to work in white areas every day.[10] This, no doubt, caused huge logistical problems, costing commuters a lot of money, that would have not existed if black populations were allowed to live in the urban areas where they worked. The cases of migrant and commuter labour is a testament to the fact that black populations wanted to seek opportunities to alleviate themselves from poverty, but that the state’s insistence on banning their presence in urban areas prevented them, further exacerbating rural poverty.

Urban restrictions were not the only causes of rural poverty. Apartheid intervention in the reserves often exacerbated poverty. Reserve residences were centralised in a process of rationalisation that forced communities to build away from their fields, prohibiting them from adequately watching over them or cultivating them.[11] This unnatural form of urbanisation shouldn’t have occurred, as it violated the natural economic needs of the populace. So-called ‘Betterment’ policies artificially grew the population by forcing them into socially engineered communities.[12] This grew the population, exacerbating overcrowding, but didn’t introduce any economic opportunities or amenities.[13] In addition to this, law enforcement would actively destroy property to force through these policies.[14] While the restrictions on urbanisation caused the foundation of poverty, the rural areas were not helped, and were rather further damaged by apartheid policies.

This essay has identified how restriction on black entry and residence in urban areas contributed to overcrowding in reserves that were not suited to such a large population or sustaining a population that needed to generate wealth to not only subsist, but to uplift themselves. In essence, apartheid disallowed the natural human solutions to the poverty of the day. Overcrowding exacerbated poverty in the reserves and could have been solved by decentralisation of the population to areas which had opportunities. This was not permitted by the apartheid government. As a result, a cycle of poverty erupted, with impoverishment pushing blacks towards the cities, and the state pushing blacks into the reserves.


  • Murray, Colin. “Displaced Urbanization: South Africa’s Rural Slums.” African Affairs 86, no. 344 (1987): 311-329.
  • Wilson, Francis and Mamphela Ramphele. Uprooting Poverty: The South African Challenge. Cape Town: David Philip, 1989. 216-226.


[1] Francis Wilson and Mamphela Ramphele, Uprooting Poverty: The South African Challenge (Cape Town: David Philip, 1989), 216.

[2] Ibid., 217.

[3] Ibid., 219.

[4] Ibid., 217.

[5] Ibid., 222.

[6] Ibid., 220.

[7] Ibid., 220.

[8] Colin Murray, “Displaced Urbanization: South Africa’s Rural Slums,” African Affairs 86, no 344 (1987): 317.

[9] Wilson and Ramphele, Uprooting Poverty: The South African Challenge, 222.

[10] Murray, “Displaced Urbanization: South Africa’s Rural Slums,” 315.

[11] Wilson and Ramphele, Uprooting Poverty: The South African Challenge, 221.

[12] Ibid., 220.

[13] Ibid., 223.

[14] Ibid., 225.