The Wits Inequality Project

Mandela Initiative newsletter (Issue 2, March 2017)



The University of the Witwatersrand has embarked on establishing a multi-year project on the study of inequality.
With an emerging appreciation that the growing levels of inequality may be linked to the current structure of the global economy, the proposed multidisciplinary project in collaboration with researchers from other universities will study inequality in the context of the global south. David Francis, a Wits researcher in the Office of the Dean: Commerce, Law and Management outlines the project and the process since its launch in August last year.

wits logo



 One of the main outcomes will be the identification of levers of social and political power that can be used to address the structural determinants of inequality

South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world despite a plethora of policies directed at alleviating poverty and inequality. As such, a new approach to overcoming inequality is required; one that systematically conducts research and engages in a policy dialogue on the politics of inequality. Indeed, there has been an emerging appreciation that not only is inequality more widespread and pervasive than previously understood, but that its growth may be tied to the existing structure of the global economy.

In response, Wits University has, for several months, been in discussion with donors about establishing a multi-year project on the study of inequality, based at the University. One of the key arguments underpinning the project is that, if inequality is to be accurately understood, and effectively addressed, it must be studied in the global south.

The Wits Inequality Project is an emerging multidisciplinary project bringing together researchers from across the academy with the aim of conducting rigorous, inter-disciplinary research on inequality in South Africa and the global south. Understanding and addressing inequality requires going beyond a narrow economic understanding of the nature and causes of inequality, and instead requires an intersectional and interdisciplinary approach centred on an understanding of how power produces and reproduces inequality. Thus, one of the founding premises of this project is that while technical solutions to addressing poverty and inequality are very important, unless the politics of what is driving high levels of poverty and inequality in South Africa and the political considerations that shape policy options are clearly understood, technical solutions will not be politically feasible. As such, one of the main outcomes of the project will be the identification of levers of social and political power that can be used to address the structural determinants of inequality.

The project was launched in August 2016, at an all-day participatory workshop, which was attended by approximately 50 Wits researchers from across the university, whose work focuses on inequality. The aim of the workshop was to identify important inequality work at the university, and set the platform for collaborative work across the institution. The workshop was, by many accounts, a remarkable day, and highlighted the depth, diversity, and innovation in inequality research at Wits.

Following from this workshop, several working groups were established to advance and deepen the research proposals presented. In December 2016, these advanced proposals were presented at a gathering of coordinators, where they were workshopped and streamlined. In January 2017, a steering committee was appointed to provide oversight and direction to the research, and to prepare a consolidated research proposal. The committee is currently finalising the research proposal.

The proposal calls for a five-year, inter-disciplinary project on inequality in South Africa and the global south, and includes researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Johannesburg, Rhodes University and the University of Cape Town, in collaboration with, among others, the South African Revenue Service and the Public Affairs Research Institute. The research agenda is structured around two core areas. The first is the identification of areas in society, including education, health care, social infrastructure and the economy, where inequality is produced and reproduced. The second involves the concurrent development of a plan of action to address inequality through structural reform of the economy and society by harnessing appropriate levers of power to effect meaningful change.


Queries about the project can be directed to Prof. Imraan Valodia, Dean of Commerce, Law and Management, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or phone +27 11 717 8011.


This article was written by David Francis, researcher in the Office of the Dean: Commerce, Law and Management, University of the Witwatersrand.