Poverty is not natural, but part of the social system

Wednesday July 24 2019

Mandela believed that poverty was not natural and must be, as a matter of course, part of the social justice system. To him freedom was not merely casting off chains but enhancing the freedom of others, not just in South Africa but everywhere in the world.
The UN in 2009 dedicated the International Mandela Day, to be celebrated every July 8, as a remembrance to Mandela’s selfless commitment to peace and justice. The public is encouraged to do good for 67 minutes in the same spirit. It is a shame that this idea is again not as widespread as it should be.

In Kenya, a nation in which there seems to be no available bridge in the gap between the rich and poor, the theme of such a day should gain more attention.

The day was celebrated at August 7th Memorial Park, marked by several speeches by representatives of Kenya’s Foreign Ministry and the South African and American Embassies. A young lady from the Footprints of Change, an organisation that seeks to empower young people through leadership, however, carried the day with her speech on poverty. The organisation hopes to address the structural causes of poverty in slum areas by providing interventions through civic engagement and peacebuilding.

They take cognisance of the idea that knowledge gaps are one of the roots causes of poverty a concept that remains foreign in many of the local interventions. It was therefore refreshing listening to youth who are aware of the need to measure poverty by the level of their access to leadership. Leadership in Kenya is often misconstrued to mean politics or political leadership.


Few understand the holistic and inclusive versions of leadership that takes into account not just the position that a youth occupy in society, but the welfare of that person in body, mind and spirit. This in turn determines how an individual interacts with access to opportunities.


The thought itself was appropriate for the setting, for the Memorial Park is a symbol of the consequences of times in the absence of peace of mind and not necessarily the want of material possessions.

She also touched on poverty of dreams something that her organisation has watched afflict many young people at the Mathare informal settlement in Nairobi. She observed that many youths are so afflicted by the lack of basic services such as water, sanitation, infrastructure that it blinds their ability to think beyond fulfilling this needs.

This in essence means that young people are falling into the trap of measuring poverty only in terms of accessing basic services, without necessarily taking into account the access to opportunities and other forms of growth. The global measure of assessing poverty through basic needs by measuring the indication of income and expenditure, usually per household, is not necessarily the best. It probably just provides the most logical measure, especially for generation of comparative data between nations.

But at the community level use of these indicators often means that once a person is able to put food on their table, have shelter and can access basic medical care, education, transport and meet their customary obligations they enter a comfort zone. In this zone they become more individualistic and less aware of their civic duty.


These is phenomena that the so-called Kenyan middle class is vilified for. When the infrastructure is bad, they get a four-wheel drive, if the education system breaks down, they send their children to private schools. Mandela Day proposes the kind of civic-mindedness that finds ways to change policy through better leadership.

In the long run this benefits generations and raises the standards of living for a nation and not for individuals. Though this may sound like advocacy for a new way of thinking, it is the traditional African style as expressed in the proverb ‘if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.

Talking of the relationship between social justice and poverty – what will happen to the 999 jobs that the actuarial science student will not be able to take up? Will the companies that offered them take the trouble to recruit other youth whose doleful existence has not been highlighted in the media?

Twitter: @muthonithangwa