ActionAid South Africa – Fighting poverty, inequality and injustice

ActionAid South Africa (AASA), part of an international non-governmental organisation operating in 45 countries, has worked in collaboration with local organizations in five provinces since 2006 to advance a society free from poverty, inequality, and injustice. AASA believes in creating a world that works for us all. This means ensuring rights become a reality for the poor and the marginalised, so they can create change for themselves.

As part of AASA’s mission to empower people with rights and resilience, it is working with 1000 young women in Cape Town and Johannesburg, providing support and training through the Young Urban Women programme to change the choices young women in the country have to make every day.

These choices might be between buying sanitary products or taking a taxi to the clinic; walking home after work because the salary is too little to cover transport to the end of each month; or giving up school because someone in the family died and the money was needed to pay for the funeral.

Want to meet some inspiring Young Urban Women? Watch this short video.

Using the human rights at the heart of the Constitution, AASA has supported young women to understand their rights, i.e. their right to access healthcare and contraception, education and protection from violence. The project builds confidence and awareness so that young women can address barriers to decent work, health services and opportunities for education or training simultaneously, by highlighting their rights, making their voices heard through campaigning, and supporting each other through solidarity.

AASA also focus on the following priority issues:


There are a myriad of challenges facing public education service provision in South Africa. These include physical and sexual violence in schools; reduced teacher commitment; privatisation; and inadequate support from the Department of Basic Education. The inputs in the system such as trained and motivated teachers; infrastructure and sanitation; instructional material such as textbooks; as well as strong leadership with vision to steer the winds of change are important in providing the desired outcomes. The budget allocation to education in South Africa is quite significant constituting 20% of the total annual budget, yet despite this, results remain dismal and poor output remains a vexing feature of South African society.

2015 saw the rise of the Fees Must Fall movement which inspired nationwide protests at universities against fee increases. Despite its own shortcomings, the movement ushered in an era of student activism and a spotlight was shone on the inequalities perpetuated by the education crisis and growing privatisation. Fees Must Fall offered new and exciting possibilities for mass mobilisation, digital communication, democratic processes and the intersection of struggles, all of which AASA can learn from and develop over the next five years.

Poverty and the condition of women

Poverty in the South African context is broadly characterised by a lack of purchasing power; exposure to risk; malnutrition; high mortality rates; low life expectancy; insufficient access to social and economic services; and few opportunities for income generation. It is difficult to begin to address gender inequality without a clear understanding of how the historical and contemporary dislocation of black people in South Africa is inextricably tied to socio-economic poverty and gender injustice that manifests in modern South Africa. Race, class, and gender are mutually reinforcing factors that serve to deepen inter-generational poverty in South Africa. The lives of the poor in general, and black women in particular, are at odds with the constitutional intention of a life of dignity for all.

Patriarchy, as a societal norm, prevails at all levels of society and finds expression in inequality of opportunity; disproportionate poverty; unemployment; ill health; food insecurity (especially among rural women); and pandemic proportions of sexual and other forms of violence against women. Women, especially black women, are the main group affected by economic, social and political uncertainties, and carry the triple burden of structurally ingrained race, class, and gender oppression. The focus on gender responsive public services that AA has been a pioneer of in developing provides an important framework to bring together issues of tax, public services, sexual violence, shifting patriarchal norms and access to the city. AASA will look to this framing as a key opportunity for the next five years.

LGBTIQ rights

Violence against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) people has escalated over the last ten years in South Africa.  African working class lesbian women, who are victims of violent hate crimes often involving rape, are not adequately protected and supported by the criminal justice system. Since LGBTIQ people are not organised at community level and lack the support of other civil society organisations (CSOs) and the public at large makes them especially vulnerable to discrimination and injustice. AASA has worked hard to develop methodologies for supporting and mobilising young lesbian women and wants to expand and deepen these in the coming strategy period. The aim is to create safer and more nurturing communities, to shift problematic and deeply embedded ideas of the LGBTIQ community.


The mining sector continues to be one of the most significant contributors to the South African economy in GDP terms, and is an important foreign currency earner. However, the sector has seen major challenges with strikes and protests for increased wages by the workers. In 2012, this culminated into the first post-apartheid massacre – Marikana. State police killed 34 mineworkers and although a commission of inquiry was conducted, no one has been brought to book. The drop in commodity prices has also affected the levels of income generated from minerals with a knock-on effect on the earnings for the mine workers as well as mass retrenchments across the country.

The environmental impact of mining on South Africa’s landscape is dire. Extensive areas of the region are becoming devoid of vegetation due to acidification and contamination of the soil, air and land. This development has far-reaching health and livelihood consequences, especially for communities in mining regions, and agriculture in the country as a whole could potentially be affected. These operations contribute to and exacerbate climate change, already hitting the country hard with widespread droughts and water shortages. The work of AASA with social movements grounded in communities impacted by mining has started to build democratic and alternative spaces to discuss and mobilise around not just the actions of individual mines but the broader policy environment in which they operate. The opportunity to link with similar communities across the African continent will be a key focus over the next five years.

Land issues

While South Africa is highly urbanised, the long-standing land question remains unresolved. 2018 marks 105 years since the 1913 Land Act which officially dispossessed Black South Africans of their land, yet today, the bulk of South African agricultural land remains in the hands of minority white farmers, while much of the food is produced for export markets, particularly in Europe. In sharp contrast to the rest of the continent, small-scale subsistence farming, while not insignificant in its contribution to feeding rural households, is not the main source of food.

Located within its neo-liberal economic framework, the African National Congress (ANC) adopted a market-based, willing-buyer-willing-seller model of land reform that requires that the state buy land back from white farmers at market-based prices. However, since the dawn of democracy, less than 5% of land has been transferred back to Black South Africans using this model.

Pressures on land in Southern Africa have increased over the past decade due to interests in food for export, agro-fuels, and other natural resources, as well as speculative investments. There has been a rapid and high concentration of land holdings through amalgamations of agro-businesses and large-scale land acquisition. The acquisitions of South African companies have increased within the country as well as regionally. This expansion has almost always been accompanied by rights violations against land-reliant communities, with especially devastating consequences for women. Women’s access to and ownership of land increases their engagement in agricultural production, which is central to food security, particularly for rural households.

In almost all areas of activism, South Africa enjoys a strong legislative framework but the extent to which this is made real in people’s lives varies considerably. South African civil society has a role to work for the realisation of rights and to hold structures of power to account – including various levels of government, private companies, and traditional and religious leadership structures.

The multiple strategies that AASA has identified include: information gathering and dissemination; sector coordination; lobbying and advocacy within spaces of power and civil society; mobilisation and movement building. There is a long history of social mobilisation in South Africa. In the current context, there are groups of informed and active people, spotlighting a spread of social issues in geographical spaces throughout the country. AASA has a role in building the capacity of these groups and provide a coordinating function as a means to bringing about social change.

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