The mutability of distributive justice attitudes in South Africa

Type Working Paper - CSSR Working Paper no. 125
Title The mutability of distributive justice attitudes in South Africa
Issue 125
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2005
Page numbers 2-29
Even after ten years of democratic government, South Africa remains an unusually unequal society. Inequalities in the distribution of incomes both reflect and reproduce inequalities of opportunity. Yet curiously little research has been conducted on what South Africans think about inequality, and their views on distributive justice. The limited extant research suggests that most South Africans believe that their country is too unequal, that there is strong support for government action to reduce inequalities, and that class consciousness and racial identities are both widespread. This paper uses existing and new data to show that distributive justice perceptions and attitudes in South Africa are mutable: perceptions and attitudes change according to the precise question posed, have changed over time, and change in the face of counter-arguments. South Africans, like people in many other parts of the world, see some poor people as more deserving than others, with perceived desert reflecting recognised needs (e.g. the elderly), responsibilities (e.g. bread-winners) and behaviour (with respondents being hostile to support for chronic drinkers, for example). Some, but not most, South Africans also become less supportive of the government supporting the poor if taxes are to be increased. Overall, South Africans seem to recognise a wide range of deserving poor, and even richer elites are inclined toward generosity, but support for redistribution is far from unconditional.

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