What can a South African do to lift themselves out of poverty?

Be lucky, charming, resilient, English-speaking, slightly selfish and well versed in "whiteness".  That's the 'starter kit'.  You need to acquire these things while you're still young for best results.

The luck you'll  need to be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the limited opportunities there are in the country to make the right contacts or impress the right people.  Those are the people through whom you can access the information and funding you need to figure out what you're good at and how to become formally schooled and qualified in it.  Or to network and access the opportunities/funding you need to be an entrepreneur.

The charm you'll need for 'social capital' - you need to be able to speak to people more powerful than you and get them to like you, to endorse you to others who will give you the chance to get paid for your craft.  When you first start out with no experience or qualifications in anything you will need to find ways to stand out from the many others like you in order to land your first job, for example. Charm and "relatability" is the way to work yourself into established social networks if you don't have the existing connections by family or friendship or having gone to the same elite schools as the people who can hire you.

Resilience you'll need because you'll need to keep trying despite the numerous failures and 'no's you will definitely get when you try to find funding for your education, try to find your first job, start a business etc.  The funding and the jobs are finite - there aren't enough to go around for everyone but your less resilient competitors will likely succumb to the self-doubt and despair that comes with being repeatedly marginalised when it comes to opportunities for self-betterment.

The English you'll need because South Africans fetishize it and almost everything in the public sphere is done in English despite the fact that it is not the first language of the South African majority.  All the information you will need about available opportunities will be in English, your potential bosses/funders will be English-speaking, your area of specialization will be taught in English.  If you ever have run-in with the law it will be in your best interests to know how to write your statement in English.  As will your contracts and other vitally important things you need to understand in order to maximise your slice of the economic pie.

The selfishness will help you numb yourself to the suffering of other poor people around you as you work your way upward. This includes family.  Escaping poverty is easier if you have only yourself to look out for.  If you're selfish, it'll be easier to pour all the resources available to you into your individual long-term betterment instead of trying to share them short-term with other poor people, which will likely keep you poor.  To illustrate this idea, here's a Terry Pratchett quote:

"The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.



But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness."


"Whiteness" here means being able to interact socially by standards which meet Western approval.  It also helps to be able to understand and care/pretend to care about the things middle-class people talk and care about.  Social lubricant.   Know how to think and speak from a Western perspective, understand and practice Western etiquette etc It is the standard by which your intelligence will be judged (sorry) as will your "merit" and suitability for certain opportunities. 

I know this is all cynical but this is what I have lived and observed.  Hard work is not enough.  Most poor people in South Africa are also extremely hard-working.  You need to understand and internalize the systems of the people who have more than you in order to convince them to let you into their club. 

It also helps to -

-live in an urban area.
-remain childless as long as possible
-be willing and able to move around the country to wherever the best opportunities seem to be
-be willing to cash in on your race and gender.  Being white and male is the most lucrative and widely bankable.  But you can even work with being black and female (the SA demographic most likely to be poor) if you move in certain circles.  You're going to need to lie to yourself a LOT to justify your privilege though in order to sleep well at night.
-be willing to commodify yourself, your life story and/or your poverty if you have to in order to get ahead
-temper your idealism.
-note that you likely won't become rich, you'll probably end up precariously middle-class.  Your security in that middle-class will depend on how ruthless you are when it comes to helping the rest of your family escape poverty.  Either spend what you earn on them and be forever broke or spend it solely on yourself and earn a place in hell:-)
This is a wildly incomplete answer, but I don't know where to start and still less where to end.

  • Somehow escape the truly appalling (especially in poor areas) state education system. To be blunt abut it, get into a "former Model C" school, which is code for "formerly white, and still predominantly white".
  • As in America, escape the ghetto by being athletically talented so you can get a sports scholarship to an elite high-school and university.
  • Pray you have an employer who has the social conscience to help you, such as by offering coaching or sending you to the same school as their own children. (Implication: the employer is white; you are black.) This does happen, but, as you can imagine, very rarely.
  • Get involved in radical activism to improve the education in poor (i.e. black) areas. They won't give it to you: you'll have to take it.
  • The ruling ANC was the revolutionary party that was the biggest player in the anti-apartheid struggle. But a revolutionary party is a different thing from a ruling party: once breaks down (easier), one builds up (harder). The ANC's track record as a ruling party sucks. Note that education, infrastructure and everything else work in the Western Cape, the only province not ruled by the ANC.
  • Get rid of the rampant corruption that bleeds off money that could be thrown at education. The only idea I have for that is voting out the ANC in your province.

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