Social impact assessment (SIA) addresses the ‘people aspect’ of development-induced change by empowering communities with a voice in the environmental impact assessment process. Globally, poverty and inequality is growing. Countries with emerging economies are especially affected, and SIA conducted within this context necessitates mitigation of both the direct impacts of particular developments as well as the social legacies that entrench poverty and inequality. Social development is an approach that can be used to reduce poverty and inequality. This paper analyses the practice of SIA and its potential to contribute to social development outcomes in emerging economies. SIA, as practised in South Africa, was analysed from the theoretical framework of social development using an exploratory sequential mixed methods design. The findings indicate that weak implementation of mitigation, monitoring and management measures dilute the potential for SIA to achieve social development outcomes. Through minor evolution of SIA practice, the process can lay a firm foundation to facilitate social development outcomes, especially considering its potential contribution to poverty reduction through the social protection floor, skills development and job creation.