Recent theoretical work hypothesises that a polarised society like South Africa will suffer a legacy of ineffective social capital and blocked pathways of upward mobility that leaves large numbers of people trapped in poverty. To explore these ideas, this paper employs a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods. Novel econometric analysis of asset dynamics over the 1993–98 period identifies a dynamic asset poverty threshold that signals that large numbers of South Africans are indeed trapped without a pathway out of poverty. Qualitative analysis of this period and the period 1998–2001 more deeply examines patterns of mobility, and confirms the continuation of this pattern of limited upward mobility and a low-level poverty trap. In addition, the qualitative data permit a closer look at the specific role played by social relationships. While finding ample evidence of active social capital and networks, these are more helpful for non-poor households. For the poor, social capital at best helps stabilise livelihoods at low levels and does little to promote upward mobility. While there is thus some economic sense to sociability in South Africa, elimination of the polarised economic legacy of apartheid will ultimately require more proactive efforts to assure that households have access to a minimum bundle of assets and to the markets needed to effectively build on those assets over time.