Social policy in modern societies often takes different approaches that include fostering educational opportunities in order to reduce unfair disadvantages that are associated with absolute and relative poverty. While absolute poverty is the inability to provide the minimum requirements of life, relative poverty is the inability to maintain a decent standard of living set by any society. Both absolute and relative poverty characterise most rural communities, and people in these communities use various conceptions of poverty to make sense of their plight. The culture of poverty in rural communities entails a set of values that emphasise living for the moment rather than investing in the future. This has resulted in most people living in persistent, habitual and severe poverty far below the poverty line.
The paper examines eight different conceptions of poverty that are used in isiZulu Language. These conceptions of poverty provide a rich, textured and elaborate description of the experiences of those who understand the condition of poverty and the circumstances which give rise to, and are associated with it. Such conceptions express the degrees of persistence and severity, visibility, the forms that poverty take, as well as and the emotions and sense of self-worth associated with it. This paper reflects on the expressions of poverty in three rural communities in KZN and demonstrates how these relate to people’s experiences of education and development. The paper then explores the implications for policy and practice in South Africa in relation to the structure, culture, and realities of poverty that emanate in these communities. The experience-based understanding of the conditions of poverty defies the reductionist descriptions which are dominant in the policy discourse and inform policy choices today. These experience-based descriptions are valuable because they defy the deficit approaches to understanding rurality and further enrich our conceptions of development.