UCT Poverty and Inequality Initiative


PII logo

The mission statement of the University of Cape Town (UCT) signals a commitment to leveraging the institution’s resources to contribute to addressing the major development challenges facing the country and the African continent. The multi-disciplinary Poverty and Inequality Initiative (PII) is one mechanism through which this commitment is being realised. This strategic initiative was, in 2013, tasked with increasing UCT’s collective contribution to tackling South Africa’s major development challenges, to strengthening research in this strategic area, and to raising the profile of existing and new research.


The PII’s work programme has given effect to this vision in two prongs. The first is providing central institutional support and academic leadership, promoting knowledge sharing and cross-disciplinary collaboration and communication – both within and beyond the university – to expand and raise the profile of UCT’s contributions to addressing poverty and inequality. This includes both research and teaching. The second is facilitating and driving UCT’s leadership of the Mandela Initiative which commenced with the “Towards Carnegie 3” conference hosted in 2012.

Tasked to increase
UCT’s contributions to
tackling South Africa’s
major development challenges,
and to strengthen and
profile research in this area


The PII spans five of the university’s faculties, bringing together staff and students from diverse disciplines – at regular meetings, seminars and other events – to share knowledge and promote collaborative research. The initiative’s two special research projects – on youth and social cohesion respectively – are particularly proactive in facilitating and organising interdisciplinary engagements and projects across the university and between these UCT communities, civil society and policy-makers.


The youth project has established a collaborative national network of researchers working in this area, and with several work streams which are contributing to the PII’s objectives. An important undertaking was to consolidate existing evidence on the situation of young people in post-apartheid South Africa through a multi-disciplinary collaboration with researchers and policy-makers which resulted in the two publications: the youth-focused South African Child Gauge 2015 and a bulletin by a group of participating youth.

A broad, multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral coalition of youth development role-players emerged out of this process to help craft and advocate for a basic package of support for young people at policy level. Parallel to this development was setting up a partnership to systematically review and map existing research on the drivers of youth unemployment, policy to mitigate youth unemployment, and interventions to increase youth employability.

The project has developed indicators to monitor youth well-being at the small area level and an innovative partnership resulted in using the indicators for the interactive Youth Explorer online tool that provides a unique information baseline for those who design and implement policies and interventions directed towards young people.

The youth project regularly convenes research and policy dialogues with high-level policy-makers, academics, civil society organisations and young people to debate youth development issues.

Social cohesion

This project has facilitated, since 2014, workshops and dialogues with members of the UCT community whose work relates to social cohesion for critical reflection and debate on the current social cohesion agenda in policy discourse. The events have included presentations from researchers and policy-makers working in fields that were influenced by, or sought impact on, the national social cohesion agenda.

The project’s aim is to support a research agenda for social cohesion and this goal is being advanced by an in-depth and critical exploration of several themes:

  • “Definition and measurement” of social cohesion by analysing the policy agenda as articulated in the National Development Plan, and exploring the philosophical principles underlying a meaningful definition of social cohesion.
  • “Social cohesion and economic welfare” by investigating programmes that facilitate the link between economic development and a deepened understanding of the distribution of capital and its impact on social cohesion in South Africa.
  • “Social cohesion and human capital” by focusing on education and the promotion of social cohesion through increased participation in activities facilitated through shared educational experiences.
  • “Social cohesion and human capital” by concentrating on experiences in the provisioning of inclusive health care.

The research agenda has been bolstered with the launch of a major research project in partnership with Agence Française de Développement in 2016 to measure the degree of social cohesion in different communities by using a set of indices to track where South Africa is in terms of a socially cohesive society. It also aims to help policy-makers identify the factors that can improve social cohesion.

Consolidated research on poverty and inequality

There are various consolidated research initiatives on poverty and inequality within the PII. This includes a large National Research Foundation grant that funds applied work by DST-NRF Research Chairs to develop well-founded strategies to overcome poverty and inequality. Five of these chairs are at UCT and all are part of the PII. This work thus serves as a platform for engagement at UCT between members of this group which consists of some of South Africa’s top policy researchers. Within the conceptual framework of polices to overcome South Africa’s deep-rooted inequality, it represents a substantive research programme for assessing the effectiveness and promising possibilities for urban, rural, education, health and labour market policies.


Facilitating interdisciplinary
engagements and projects
across the university and
between these UCT communities,
civil society and policy-makers

Mandela Initiative

The PII has been playing a leading role in supporting the Mandela Initiative since the latter’s founding conference in 2012. It has taken great effort to get this initiative up and running, and the fact that the MI has partnered with the Nelson Mandela Foundation is to the credit of those at UCT who are involved. The MI process has been generating a steady flow of policy-relevant research and conducting dialogues with civil society, government and research institutions on innovative strategies to overcome poverty and inequality in South Africa.

This article was written by the PII’s Haajirah Esau and the Pro-Vice Chancellor: Poverty and Inequality, Murray Leibbrantd, with input from Ariane De Lannoy (youth project) and Justine Burns (social cohesion project).