Lessons from the Social Economy Policy project in South Africa: Understanding diversity

The ILO‘s Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) Policy project in South Africa is working on building a comprehensive understanding of social economy in the country to inform a policy that is inclusive. The findings from the National Survey conducted in 2019 informed the recommendations found in the Green Paper on the Social and Solidarity Economy.

News | 27 January 2021
Since initiating the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) Policy project in South Africa in 2017, the project team has worked on better understanding the full scope and extent of the work within the sector. It was a long road toward building a comprehensive picture of the South African environment, its complexity, diversity and nuances.

As South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal countries, it was critical that the policy is inclusive, especially of those that exist outside the mostly urban mainstream networks.

It was also necessary to have a policy that is reflective of and responsive to, the reality on the ground resisting one-size-fits-all approaches.

SSE is definitionally complex. Its strength lies in its diversity, community embeddedness, responsiveness and chameleon like nature, which allows it to address a range of local issues. This ambiguity required understanding the institutional complexity: the community agricultural co-operative, that also operates a crèche; the elderly care centre which funds itself through waste collection, whilst baking and selling bread; and the group of women who meet each week in their savings club stokvel, who also club together to share transport to get to the shops. It was crucial that we write a policy that supported this diversity, whilst remaining practical and implementable.

Understanding the environment has been crucial to the recommendations found in the Green Paper on the Social and Solidarity Economy. That began with understanding what organisations make up the Social Economy, what work they do, and their motivation to doing it.

Below are three lessons from the national survey (n=506) conducted by the policy team in late 2019 with social and solidarity economy practitioners:

1. Lesson 1: The organisational mix of the SSE in South Africa

As noted in a previous write up, 93 per cent of the practitioners surveyed were with registered entities, indicating a high degree of formality. This reinforces the bridging role the SSE plays in formalizing the informal economy. The two dominant company types identified were non-profits (33 per cent) and for-profits (36 per cent). Of the practitioners surveyed 24 per cent were registered as cooperatives. Organisations were often registered as more than one entity – a glimpse into hybridity, and possibly an opportunity, as people see value in being registered.

2. Lesson 2: The SSE is appealing across all ages and levels of experience

The SSE is drawing in people from across a range of age groups and experiences. The assumption going into the study, was that the SSE would be appealing to young people, as demonstrated in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s 2009 and 2015 studies into social entrepreneurship in South Africa. The survey found that SSE draws in people across different levels of experience showing that it provides an important opportunity for livelihood creation among people who are starting out. Plus it comes with fewer disruptions considering that 96 per cent of those sampled lived and worked in the same place heightening the value of being employed through community-based SSE enterprises. SSE also provides opportunity for people later in life, who come into, or remain in, SSE enterprises with accumulated knowledge and skill.

3. Lesson 3: So what do people do?

People work in a range of sectors, and typically do more than one thing. Responses to qualitative interviews show the essence of the social mission of SSE in the description of work, and the range of work that is done from caring for the older generation and providing fresh vegetables, to working with young people.

“We clean the environment and we create jobs”

“We host events like soccer tournaments in the community to help get kids off the streets and away from a life of crime. We also grow veggies for the local kindergartens.”

“We provide community with vegetables”

“We are helping each other by saving money”

“We provide meals to the elderly three days per week.”

“Improving local talent and helping improve education and health to youth and the next generation of youth.”  

 The top ten areas of work show the pivotal role of agriculture to communities, and, because of spatial inequality and the long distances between villages and shops, the value of these entities in terms of access

The importance of Handwork, which combines sewing – especially traditional wear and school uniforms – together with crafts that reflect cultural heritage, comes in second. A deeper analysis is needed on gender, but early results say that it is mostly women in this work group, indicating the work that still needs to be done in the gendered division of labour and the stereotypes that persist around women’s work.

Training and skills development is particularly focused on connecting young people or those who are unemployed, to work. This ranges from specialist and vocational training, to
“softer” skills such as mentoring and support, corresponding directly with efforts to improve unemployment in South Africa, particularly for marginalised groups:

“Training deaf people to become sign language teachers and provide SA sign language training”

“Skills training to increase child protection for vulnerable groups”

“Training, Learning and apprenticeships, artisan training, workplace skill plans, B-BBEE, Employment equity and business coaching.”

“Counselling services, skills development training, job placement and sale of goods and services”

Early Childhood Development (ECD) was separated from child and youth development, to show how prominent these two themes are. Considered together, they would take second place.

“Teaching kids holistically and provide love”

“We [are] visiting schools … educating them about drug abuse, human trafficking, HIV/AIDS, rape, bullying etc. as well as elderly people who are being abused physically and verbally, and generally assisting members of our community”

The last themes in the top ten relate to elderly care and the provision of social services, such as delivering medicines, care for the environment predominantly through waste recycling, and financial support such as stokvels. Catering is a natural extension of agricultural businesses and could be an early indicator of diversification and scaling.


This collection of results provides insights into the diversity of the social economy both in terms of the people who work in it, but also the scope of work. Understanding to what organisations respond is also a proxy to understanding the issues that are experienced by communities. Key among them are: the spatial divides that still dominate South Africa’s reality and which continue to exclude people from markets making it difficult to access food and work opportunities; the complexity of employability and the skills gaps both of which are being bridged through training programmes, the importance of culture in the making of traditional and church wear; and the essence of care and support that is seen through Early Childhood Development centres, elderly-care homes and the growing awareness of our responsibility towards the environment.

These opportunities demonstrate the deep value of the SSE, as it strengthens social cohesion through reciprocity, mutualism and solidarity.