Why is South Africa still so unequal?

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A demonstrator holds a banner through in Johannesburg on April 23, 2015 during a march gathering several thousands of people to protest against the recent wave of xenophobic attacks in South AfricaImage source, Getty Images
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Thousands of South Africans have taken part in protests against the recent xenophobic attacks

Violent riots on the streets of South Africa in recent weeks have seen foreigners killed, shops looted and thousands left homeless.

Foreigners are accused of taking jobs from locals in a country where unemployment remains high; proof of the chasm that remains between rich and poor.

So 21 years after Nelson Mandela pledged to liberate all South Africans from the continuing bondage of poverty and deprivation, why does their country remain one of the most unequal societies on the planet?

The World Service Inquiry hears from four expert witnesses.

Murray Leibbrandt: We've generated a society that itself generates inequality

University of Cape Town economics professor Murray Leibbrandtworks for the unit which carried out the first national survey of inequality in 1993, at the request of the incoming African National Congress (ANC).

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Professor Leibbrandt argues some aspects of inequality have worsened since 1994

"It's a humbling story. South Africa started the post-apartheid period with very high levels of inequality that we can easily understand, because this was apartheid South Africa. We had a government that was directed to addressing that inequality, especially its racial dimensions.

"We've seen some changes in the racial composition, but we still have incredibly high levels of inequality. At best, they're the same as they were in 1994. Some estimates have them marginally higher.

"The fact that inequality has gone up within racial groups isn't in and of itself a bad thing, but it just seems that we've generated a society that itself generates inequality.

"It's always going to be the labour market that transforms a society, but it has really underperformed in South Africa over the post-apartheid period: job creation isn't very high.

"Even if we grow at 2 to 3% it's largely not through creating a whole lot of jobs. The services sector has grown. That's a skill-intensive, not particularly employment-intensive sector. It's about the mismatch and the structure of our growth.

"Brazil managed to create a large number of semi-skilled and unskilled jobs, or jobs that were in the same zone as the young people who were coming out of school, so they included a whole lot of society that had previously not been included.

"That's the key thing in South Africa - you need that process of inclusivity that somehow Brazil got right. That's the missing link."

Yoliswana Dwane: Damaging legacy of apartheid-era education system

Yoliswana Dwane co-founded the social movement Equal Education.

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Yoliswana Dwane identifies a disconnect between the political elite and those on the ground

"I come from a township in the Eastern Cape called Dimbaza. I remember being crammed into a classroom, about a hundred students in one room.

"There are still some schools that are overcrowded. Learners have to fight over furniture or access to a desk, and they don't concentrate, especially where kids have to use bricks as a chair.

"We have about 400 schools that are made of mud; lack of electricity in about 3,000 schools; lack of water in about 2,000 schools; lack of connectivity; and also inappropriate structures, schools that are falling apart. Those conditions pose a danger to the lives of children. A young learner from Limpopo died because he fell into a pit latrine."

South Africa spends a bigger share of its GDP on education than any other country in Africa. That has got more children into schools, but the quality of education is often poor:

"The apartheid system was geared towards making black people inferior. Education was one way of disempowering an entire black nation, not allowing black people to enter into certain areas of the economy, starting from Bantu education in 1953."

The Bantu system segregated black and white children, and aimed to prevent black children from being educated to aspire to positions they could not then hold. Those children are now parents and teachers themselves:

"The South African curriculum says that parents should be involved in their children's education. Kids are given exercises to work out at home, but parents are not in a position to help.

"The average teacher is 40 years old, and the majority were taught under Bantu education. A regional study identified teachers who are not themselves able to do maths exercises for Grade 6.

"It starts with political will, because we know what the challenges are, but in order to change the problems that we face, we don't only need to accept that we have a problem, but rather have political will.

"Promises are being made [by the government], but young people in this country are angry. They are angry because they are not getting jobs. I think it's because of the disconnect between the political elite and those who are facing the real challenges on the ground."

Andrew Feinstein: ANC's economics policy has devastated the country

Andrew Feinstein was an ANC member of parliament between 1994 and 2001. He resigned after the ANC refused to allow an independent investigation into a large arms deal.

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Andrew Feinstein became disillusioned with the ANC's approach once in government

"As the winds of change stirred in South Africa, so the business community continued to play the political game. The big corporations were very involved in the transition. I worked as a facilitator in the constitutional negotiations: we were funded by the hundred largest corporations in South Africa.

"As soon as the ANC leadership was released from jail - and this includes Nelson Mandela - they heard the same message from these people, that there was a way in which one prospered and survived in today's world.

"You limited the role of government in the economy, you restricted government spending and you allowed the private sector to flourish because that is where jobs and wealth were going to be created.

"It has worked for a lot of countries but the problem with those sort of formulae - and I say this as someone who's played an important role in economic and financial policy after 1994 and therefore is somewhat culpable in this as well - is that these approaches to economic policy disregard the unique circumstances of particular countries. South Africa was particularly unique at this time for a whole range of reasons.

"There was, as one writer put it, 'a struggle for the soul of the ANC', and the reality is the technocrats won."

In return for large loans, the ANC government agreed to keep spending and taxes low and not to protect its own industry.

"This was absolutely devastating. The clothing and textile sector in South Africa employed well over 300,000 people in 1994. A few years after that - because of the flood of cheap imports from various parts of the world - there were maybe 50,000 people employed.

"This economic compromise ensured that the business community today - 20 years after our democracy started - is still entirely dominated by the white community with a handful of exceptions of the black elite.

"For my last couple of years in parliament, I began to see the impact that these economic policies were having on the nature of the ANC, and I began to get the impression we were serving our own interests as a very small ruling elite, rather than the interests of the broader population.

"Unless a meaningful opposition to the ANC develops, I can't see those changes taking place. It's going to take something of a political earthquake for that to happen.

Mcebisi Ndletyana: Corrosive effect of patronage politics

Mcebisi Ndletyana is head of political economy at the South African think tank MISTRA.

Image source, Jeremy Glyn
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Mcebisi Ndletyana argues improved economic prospects would undermine the present system of political patronage

"We identified patronage politics as something that has a corrosive effect because people get into politics for material benefits, and individuals that are ill-prepared for positions are nominated purely because they provide benefits in return.

"So a councillor, for instance, during the course of her tenure, would ensure that she builds a group of supporters who would support her when the next round of elections comes. So it's a set of clients that you nurture - you take care of them, and when the party has nominations, those people whom you'd been taking care of vote for you against the other guy.

"People who are poor tend to be open to using all manner of ways to eke a living, and they support certain candidates as long as that candidate gives that person something in return, regardless of whether or not that candidate is fit for office.

"One of the rallying cries of the anti-apartheid struggle was 'liberation first and education later', and a lot of people took that slogan quite literally. They dropped out of school, went to the bush to train and came back to liberate South Africa as guerrillas. So they had then, in 1994, valid expectations of employment from an organisation they'd served, from the country for which they had given up their youth and sacrificed a lot.

"Because they can't get jobs anywhere else, they become quite protective of those jobs, so what most have tended to do is to build a nest in case they don't make it back to public office.

"You need to make it possible for people to become self-sufficient. They have nothing, so they are willing to do anything to get something to eat. If they can fend for themselves, there's no need to enter into some kind of relationship with a politician.

"Education obviously gives you skills to get a job, but once you have that education, you need to find a job, so our economy has got to create jobs, but fundamentally, most importantly, it's education."

The Inquiry is broadcast on the BBC World Service on Tuesdays from 12:05 GMT/1305 BST. Listen online or download the podcast.