College of Human Sciences

Call for Abstracts and Papers for the 2017 Social Policy in Africa conference

20-22 November 2017
University of South Africa, City of Tshwane, South Africa

Theme: Social Policy in Africa’s Development Context

The ‘counter-revolution’ in Development Economics that emerged in the 1980s brought in its wake a ‘counter-revolution’ in Social Policy. In its origin, the ‘counter-revolution’ could be understood as a revolt against the normative underpinnings of the ‘welfare state’—something marked by Frederick von Hayek’s The road to serfdom (1944). By the 1980s in the North, this involved efforts at retrenching the state and restructuring welfare provision. In the South, and especially in the African context, this involved a comprehensive reconstitution of the way the state ‘thinks’ and acts in relation to the economy and its citizens. From the idea of a state that ‘thinks’ in terms of a comprehensive obligation for securing long-term national wellbeing and development, what emerged was a ‘night-watchman’ state, more recently recast in the language of the ‘capable state’—one more focused on securing the space for private investors than the wellbeing of its citizens. Economic policy was increasingly disconnected from social policy, with a public policy orientation that is averse to socialised provisioning, solidaristic risk pooling, (inter-class) redistribution, and universalism. Social policy became largely residual.

 Social policy has always been shaped by two broad contending forces. On the one hand, we have those who see its objectives as mopping up the diswelfares that emerge from market and institutional failure. On the other hand, are those who see social policy as having an encompassing reach and coverage, integrated with economic policy, and driven by norms of equality and solidarity. The former takes a residual approach, with market as the first port of call in social provisioning and public welfare as port of last resort focused on the deserving poor who are not able to meet their own social provisioning. The latter addresses diswelfares in both the ways we pursue development and design production activities, and respond to needs at various stages of the life-cycle. 

Over the last thirty years, in response to Africa’s development challenges and diswelfares that its citizens face, a more residual take on social policy has become largely hegemonic, with powerful external and local actors using the continent as site of a range of social experiments. Much of this has been driven by an anti-development thinking that imagines the solution to poverty as largely a matter of “just give money to the poor”—even as the ‘poor’ are defined in highly restrictive fashion to cover a smaller proportion of the population experiencing severe entitlement failure—or a direct distribution of earnings from mineral wealth to citizens (a question of ‘oil to cash’). Missing from such propositions is a structural approach to understanding the bases of entitlement failure, poverty and inequality. There is a general refusal to the engage with the maladjustment of Africa’s economies, deepening their structural weaknesses. The economies are no less subject to vagaries of external forces in the second decade of the twenty-first century than they were in the eighth decade of the twentieth. The social dislocations and citizens’ diswelfares, even in the context of improved growth on the back of commodity super boom, have not shown commensurate reduction. In most instances, the diswelfares have deepened. Wealth-based measures of inequality have worsened in much of the continent, and poverty rate (measured at $3.10 PPP/day) is above 70% of the population in several countries.

It is a public policy regime sustained by an alliance of domestic and external actors. If we understand the relations between state and citizens as a web of rights and obligations, the retreat of the state from socialised and universal social provisioning undermines the legitimacy of the state, reinforces its more coercive face in its engagements with citizens, and undermines social cohesion. Leaving citizens to fend for themselves in the market place makes them subjects of the vagaries of the market. Neither is there evidence that reducing social policy to social assistance, which is narrowly focused on the deserving poor in increasingly dualistic social policy regimes, eliminates poverty or ensures quality services for the poor. 

Beyond this, of course, is the lack of appreciation that social policy (or even social protection) is not simply about the relief of poverty. Progressive social policy is fundamentally about ensuring human flourishing. It does this by enhancing the productive capacity of citizens through public investment in education, healthcare, housing, etc.; reconciling “the burden of reproduction with that of other social tasks” (Mkandawire 2011); it is about protecting people from the vagaries of life throughout the life-cycle; it pays attention to the distributive outcome of economic performance; and it should advance social cohesion (and achieving the nation-building objectives so vital in the African context). It does all these more efficiently through a ‘prophylactic’ approach of preventing vulnerability rather than waiting to attend to it after people have fallen through the cracks.

Whether in the more progressive welfare regimes in the North or the post-colonial experiences of the South (and Africa more so), successful advancement in human wellbeing has always involved the integration of social and economic policies and constructing social policy regimes focused on its multiple tasks. Public provisioning of education, healthcare, housing, as social investment, on the basis of solidarity and advancing equality supports economic development. Economic development grounded in the same norms of solidarity and advancing equality ensures the resources necessary for the extension of social policy. The objectives of social policy measures are not only prophylactic but aimed at being transformative of the economy, social relations, social institutions, and deepening democracy.

The DST/NRF SARChI Chair in Social Policy and its partners invite abstracts of papers to be presented at the 2017 Social Policy in Africa Conference. The conference will take place from 20-22 November 2017 at the University of South Africa (Pretoria, South Africa). We invite abstracts and papers that offer critical reflections on (a) Africa’s experience with social policy since Africa’s decade of independence in the 1960s, (b) contemporary experiences of social policy, and (c) prospective inquiries into social policy for addressing Africa’s diverse challenges of developmental and human wellbeing. As the heart of the conference is theorising Africa’s social policy experiences (formal and non-formal) in rethinking social policy.

The call for this conference is premised on the need to return to a wider vision of social policy and a more holistic development project that requires rethinking social policy and economic development in a manner that reinforces the complementarity of economic and social policies. It is a comprehensive approach that should take cognisance that a significant share of Africa’s population is still in the rural area. In this regard, it calls for reflections on how the multiple tasks of social policy can be activated to enhance the quality of lives for the rural population. How do we understand land and agrarian reforms from a social policy perspective?

In the same vein, we invite research-based papers that offer reflection on diversity of traditional conceptions of mutual support and collective efforts that simultaneously enhance production and protect against the vagaries of life. 

We invite abstracts and papers in the following thematic areas:

  1. Social Policy in Africa’s Development Context: redressing poverty, reducing inequality, promoting development.
  2. Rethinking Social Policy: African insights in theorising social policy.
  3. Social Policymaking in Africa: actors, agency, and policy space.
  4. Poverty and Inequality in Africa.
  5. Redressing Health Inequalities: ensuring access to quality healthcare.
  6. Pension Systems Reform and Income Security in Old Age.
  7. Critical Perspectives on Social Protection.
  8. Non-Formal Social Provisioning: the African Experiences.
  9. Land and Agrarian Reform: the social policy perspectives.


  • Deadline for Abstracts: Thursday, 01 September 2017. Authors of accepted abstracts will be informed by Friday, 08 September 2017.
  • Deadline for full papers of accepted abstracts: Friday, 20 October 2017

Submission of Abstracts:

  • Click here to access the abstracts submission page.

Travel Support Grants:

  • A very limited number of travel support grants is available for accepted paper presenters.

Please direct all enquiries to:

Ms Ipeleng Chauke
2017 Social Policy in Africa Conference
Tel: +27 12 337 6114.

Post-Conference Activities

We plan to publish a selected number of the papers presented at the conference in a special edition of Africa Development. A larger number of papers will be published as an edited volume of papers.