The paper tries to explain how, 14 years into democracy, the poor have moved from being central to post-apartheid reconstruction to being depicted by political leaders as lacking moral fibre and depending on ‘handouts’—from deserving to undeserving poor. This has occurred within the ruling African National Congress, even though sympathy for the poor remains constant outside of government. To do so, the paper starts in mid- and late-nineteenth-century England, where Victorian intellectuals and policy-makers grappled with the challenge of a growing urban proletariat and the emergence of what Disraeli described as ‘two nations’—a recurrent theme of the ANC government under President Mbeki—and the two newly democratising countries grappled with the ‘revolutionary threat and humanitarian disgrace’ of poverty. The paper then analyses recent ANC discourse around the poor and anti-poverty interventions. The unresolved tensions within the ANC-led tripartite alliance, it is argued, are directly implicated in its failure adequately to conceptualise poverty, and 14 years into democracy, South Africa lacks an anti-poverty strategy, targets, or target groups. The paper ends by suggesting a method for identifying the ‘ultra-poor’, which is critical in place of the ‘spray and pray’ approach currently in use if poverty is substantially to be rolled back.