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The South African poor White problem in the early twentieth century: Lessons for poverty today

Johan Fourie (Department of Economics, University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa)

Management Decision

ISSN: 0025-1747

Article publication date: 11 September 2007




The purpose of this paper is to assess whether any meaningful lessons can be learned from South Africa's early twentieth century experience of White poverty and to what extent such lessons can be applied in order to combat Black poverty today.


This paper uses quantitative measures to assert the scale of poverty for both White and Black poverty in the two periods. An extensive discussion of the causes of poverty in both periods concludes with specific policy implications for today. Because of the unique characteristics and history of South Africa, this paper provides a unique dimension to poverty analysis.


The paper suggests that three key policy lessons can be learned from the twentieth‐century effort to combat White poverty and applied to Black poverty as it exists in South Africa today: an improvement in the quality of education, an improvement in the property right ownership of the poor, and policies to eliminate the constraints on economic growth, by investment, for example, in infrastructure and new technological industries.

Research limitations/implications

Caution is advised when comparing past eras with the present; in comparing two periods that differ widely, only tentative recommendations is possible.


Since many areas of the world are faced with the difficult task of eradicating poverty, attempts that, to any extent, are successful are of interest and contribute positively to the development of the available knowledge base. The time‐span and design of this paper offers a unique perspective on poverty eradication efforts.



Fourie, J. (2007), "The South African poor White problem in the early twentieth century: Lessons for poverty today", Management Decision, Vol. 45 No. 8, pp. 1270-1296.



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Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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