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7Qs for Academics Siviwe Mhlana


Today we speak to Siviwe Mhlana, Researcher: Inequality Studies at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies.

This is an ongoing series where we introduce some key researchers and academics getting to understand their work, their developing research interests as well as what keeps them engaged.

Explain the nature of your work and/or how it relates to inequality.

As an economist, my work seeks to expose the realities of our current economic system through research that is centred on the experiences of the most marginalised members of our society (i.e. women, children, black people, indigenous communities, migrant workers, and those employed in vulnerable jobs in the informal economy). In the last few years, my work has primarily focused on the politics of labour and the social and economic impacts of neoliberal globalisation in developing countries, with particular focus on the implications that work has on the livelihoods of workers and their families. My current research seeks to identify alternative strategies towards a fairer and just post-COVID-19 economy, with particular focus on women informal workers in the global South.

Why do you think inequality remains such an intractable social and economic problem?

One of the major challenges to addressing issues of poverty and inequality around the world is the disconnect between reality, economic theory and the laws and policies that are implemented by national governments. Contrary to what neoclassical theory would like us to believe, economic science is not unbiased in its laws and policy recommendations. Moreover, GDP growth alone, will not lead to economic prosperity and social health; we’ve seen this with the current global health and economic crisis. Perhaps one of the most important lessons that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted is that in order to address the longstanding inequalities around the world, policies must be aligned with the reality that is experienced on the ground. Therefore, economic science must also be transformed.

What continues to keep you engaged in your work or areas of research?

To be honest, as a black woman in South Africa, it is difficult to completely disengage from issues of inequality when so much of my existence has been shaped by it. Having grown up in the township of New Brighton, in the Eastern Cape, and attending predominantly white and middle-class schools, I learned very early in my upbringing of the highly unequal nature of our society.

From an early age, I was made aware that in this same country where so many are deprived, there is also an abundance of wealth and privilege that is only reserved for a few people; who rarely look like me. So naturally, I wanted to study economics because I wanted to understand why this was the case, with the hopes of one day being a part of the solution. However, it wasn’t until postgrad that I was able to engage with the reality of the South African social and economic context – a major frustration throughout my studies. So, I guess I stay engaged in my work because it is a big part of my reality, but I am also driven by the immense work required to address the multiple challenges we are faced with.

What is one thing your field is not focusing on that it should?

Real life. The mainstream approach has been to separate the economy from its social, political and historical contexts. Therefore, if we are to adequately address issues of inequality around the world, economic theory and its methodological applications must be rooted in the reality of how the economy actually works and is experienced by ordinary people. This means, understanding that humans are socially connected and interdependent, and that the economic system does not function in isolation. The economy interacts with, and is affected by, the social, cultural and political aspects of society. Moreover, people’s experiences and economic vulnerabilities are determined and affected by the dynamics of power and the intersections of race, class and gender in society.

Who are some academics (in your field or otherwise) whose work you follow closely? Why?

The interdisciplinary nature of my work and my broad set of interests (particularly international development, labour economics, social policy and gender) require me to have a diverse and intersectional approach to research. Hence, in recent years, I have largely followed the work of Nancy Fraser, Naila Kabeer, Asanda Benya, Bridget Kenny, Ben Scully, Nicolas Pons-Vignon, Karl von Holdt and Edward Webster.  

What books are you currently reading?

When I’m not reading every policy document on the post-COVID-19 economic recovery (because that has pretty much been my life for the last few months), I am reading Sarah Mosoetsa’s “Eating from One Pot: The Dynamics of Survival in Poor South African Households” and the late Sylvia Chant’s “Gender, Generation and Poverty”.

 Complete the sentence: “The first thing I do each morning once I get up is …

… work out and then take about an hour walk outside. At this point, it’s a routine. With the pandemic, I’ve found that taking that time for myself helps to ensure that I am not just sitting at my desk all day. Somewhat of a work-life balance, I suppose.

If you are interested in her work, please contact her at 

This is an ongoing series of interviews with prominent academics and researchers.