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      Social Inequality in South Africa: At What Price?  

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Michael Brown II
Updated 9-19-2004

With the end of Apartheid more than ten years in the past, South Africa is at a crucial point in its history as a nation. New democracy means that old conceptions of race and class need examination. As a visitor to South Africa, cognizant of the fact that it has the highest economy in all of Africa, one must wonder or critically examine the price of Social Inequality.

Today in South Africa, any visitor can note the salience of the stark inequality that exists. The ride from the airport to the beauty of the inner city shows the unsuspecting foreigner the grim reality of life in the townships up close and personal. Before reaching the breathtaking waterfront or Table Mountain, it is implausible that anyone could miss the presence of street children begging for food.

In the schools, old vestiges remain. The private sector has emerged to keep past government stratification in education alive. In order to teach African students, an 8 th grade education is all that is necessary. In order to teach Whites, a college diploma is most common of teachers.[1] At even some of the best schools in South Africa, math and the sciences are not offered, leaving Blacks ill-prepared to compete for admission to further education. On the other hand, Whites send their kids to private schools where they receive the best resources. Most notably, 40% of the wage differential between Whites and Blacks in South Africa can be associated with the varying returns from education.[2]

In terms of residential segregation, the townships still make social mobility a formidable task. Lastly, the economic situation of South Africa is most difficult to grasp. Many Africans in South Africa live in townships or rural areas in shift made houses in densely populated community.[3]In many populations, whereas the government may calculate the populations in the thousands, the residents themselves count the numbers in the millions in some cases.

Ten years after apartheid there is an emerging White population living in lower class strata (less than ten percent), it still is not comparable to the African situation in poverty. As well, a majority of the wealth (upper class) in South Africa is concentrated in Gauteng - 52%.[4]As well, today the Gini coefficient for inequality still puts South Africa at the top with Brazil.[5]18 out of 45 million today have no conception of the prosperity that lies in the economy for some.[6]Many have characterized this phenomenon as two economies in South Africa.

The direction of future social policy will no doubt have to acknowledge the disparities that exist. The history of the surrounding African nations (i.e. Zimbabwe) supports this hypothesis. Since 2000, Zimbabwe, like other African nations after independence, seeks redistribution of resources from Whites to Blacks. South Africa must find a way to resolve a complex dilemma. Social Inequality is what maintains its economy but also undermines its nationalism.

This may sound somewhat illogical; however, it is quite clear that South Africa benefits from its Social Inequality. The Government has spent money on projects for black empowerment that have started businesses and furthered the economy over of building housing that would even make a dent in the densely crowded townships in many cases. These townships provide cheap labor and a tidy, confined "problem" in a small amount of space. Unsaid by many is the fact that the cause of the Social Inequality is the fact it has maintained the White population in South Africa. Presumptuous as it may be, the history of the world dictates that true economic empowerment for any bottom strata group has led to flight of the previously dominating group. This generally happens when the minority gets too close for comfort and imposes on Whites' life chances. Rather than advance policies that would lead or broach upon white flight and loss of economic capital, South Africa seems to have packaged its problem.

The best solution would seem to lie in projects that link economic development to social mobility for those passed oppressed by governmental impositions without undermining their culture. A sincere imposition to social mobility for many blacks is the relative economic weight of their mother tongue. Many Blacks do not gain access to the language skills to empower themselves. In fact, it is seen as loss of culture to have the accent of business world in many townships simply because so few actually have left to return with the alternate tongue of the more economically viable world. Some entrepreneurs have reconciled their culture with the tourism industry, but the number is not that great and substantial enough to work for all. This is just one example of how mobility is in conflict with retention of culture.

Since 1997, the African National Congress has advanced Black Empowerment. The African National Congress along with Mandela is renowned worldwide for their promotion of Truth and Reconciliation in order to bring South Africa towards peace. In 1999, Blacks began to make a dent in stock market ownership rising to 15%. However, today many are skeptical about these policies because numbers show no significant change for those poor blacks denied access to favorable government intervention. Though multiple prosperous black businesses have formed to contribute to black economic empowerment, this black middle class is exclusive and small in the eyes of the masses.[7]

A simple suggestion to advance the state of those Blacks stratified would be to empower them to associate their culture with economic empowerment. Leaders must look for ways to make the risk of losing one's sense of pride in language, way of living not so drastic. In order to reconcile this Social Inequality, it is imperative that the culture of doing without begins to heed to the culture of success. Obviously, the problem at hand in South Africa is complicated and one that requires more than a cursory examination. However, it is quite clear that the future of peaceful reconciliation lies in its ability to appease and maintain Whites while uplifting the plight of the masses. True Economic Empowerment in name is great, but in practice may cost a great deal. Is South Africa willing to pay the price is the question?


1Abrams, J. Headmaster at Phoenix High School. Personal Interview. September 15, 2004

2 Kewwell, Malcolm. Education & Racial Inequality in South Africa. Post-Apartheid. http://www.santage.eduresearch/publicationsworkingpapers/04-02-008.pdf

3 Social Inequality, A threat to social stability. IRIN. http://www.irinnews.orgreport.asp?ReportID=42356&SelectRegion=Southern_African&SelectCountry=South_Africa

4 Seekings, Jeremy. Social Stratification & Inequality in South Africa at the end of Apartheid. 2001

5   Inequality and the social wage in South Africa: debating aspects of the ten-year review . Southern African Regional Poverty Network.


7 Slaughter, Barbara. South Africa: The Fraud of "black empowerment". World Socialist Website.