South Africa’s unequal prospect

Tom Burgis
5 August 2009

The vista from among the shacks, hubbub and agonies of Alexandra says it all. Towering beyond the crumbling hostels built for the township's migrant mineworkers are two skyscrapers - the pinnacles of Sandton, the financial district that marks the wealthiest apex of the wealthiest city in Africa: Johannesburg.

Tom Burgis is West Africa correspondent at the Financial Times, based in Lagos, having previously been the Johannesburg correspondent. Before joining the FT, he was freelance and spent a year in South America, most of it with the Santiago Times as Chile attempted to bring Augusto Pinochet to justice.

He has written for openDemocracy's debates on protest and globalisation, and for a year presided over the monthly Bad Democracy Awards.

Among Tom Burgis's articles in openDemocracy:

"Arresting development in Chile" (14 June 2005)

"Michelle Bachelet's hard lesson" (26 June 2006)

"The siege of Hong Kong" (12 December 2005)

"A guide to the post-9/11 world" (8 September 2006)

"Addicted: William Burroughs and a world in heat" (3 November 2006)Few countries have such an unequal distribution of wealth as South Africa. Since the end of apartheid fifteen years ago, the prevailing economic orthodoxy has held that a rising tide would eventually lift all boats. Yet inequality lies at the root of many of the nation's ills.

The rallying-cry of the latest township riots is a demand for basic services - without which poor South Africans' hopes of escape from destitution are throttled. The income-gap serves as a place where crime, violence and Aids ferment.

It was not supposed to be like this. When Nelson Mandela led the African National Congress to victory in the 1994 elections that deposed white rule, many South Africans believed - despite the long-jailed freedom-fighter's warnings to the contrary - that democracy would automatically engender prosperity.

Instead, the new order inherited modern history's most successful attempt to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few. Johannesburg's juxtaposition of dirt-poor townships and plush suburbs is the geographical legacy: a black labour-force near enough to work but far enough away for wealthy whites to sleep easily.

Today the economic pyramid largely retains the shape of the apartheid years, even if a few black notables have reached the peak.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concluded in a 2008 report: "The most disappointing aspect of post-apartheid economic performance is the emergence and persistence of extreme levels of unemployment, particularly for less-skilled younger blacks, together with the continuation of widespread poverty and the widening of inequalities."

Olive Shisana, head of the Human Sciences Research Council, says income inequality lies behind a potentially alarming rise in the number of young women whose sexual partners are much older.

The girls who slink into corrugated-iron knocking-shops are hardly in a position to insist that their older lover put on a condom. Experts call this "transactional sex", where the wealthy partner supplies mobile-phones and other tokens that serve as a sticking-plaster over the lack of meaningful economic advances.

"If you had a society that was different in terms of access to resources, I think things would be very, very different", says Dr Shisana. "For people to try to equalise, they go to sugar daddies."

It was horror at inequality in its own right, rather than a hatred of the whites who benefited from it, that motivated some of the country's most valuable ideas. Mandela's renowned non-racialism is the most prominent; among the others is the proposal of the white South African Aubrey Meyer - fed originally by an abhorrence of "separate development" - that climate change should be countered by allocating the right to pollute equally among every human being on the planet.

Yet the skewed distribution of resources continues to define life in South Africa.

The wall within

Such disparities - combined with rampant car-theft - have given rise to an entire informal industry: the guards who earn a few rand keeping watch over parked vehicles.

The overwhelmingly black attendants depend for their living on the very lawlessness from which they, rather than those who can afford electric fences, are much more likely to suffer. The gratuitous violence that accompanies many crimes appears to be motivated as much by economic structures that have kept most blacks poor than by a lasting racial animosity.

The other end of the spectrum was recently evident at one of Johannesburg's most chic nightspots, where a multi-coloured elite was plied with champagne as models enacted James Bond scenarios to showcase designer bulletproof attire. What better way to avoid becoming one of the 19,000 South Africans who are murdered annually while still flaunting the wealth that makes you a target, was the barely concealed sales pitch. 

Politicians argue, with some merit, that righting the distortions of apartheid was never going to be straightforward. Supporters of Thabo Mbeki, president until September 2008, point to the achievements of "black economic empowerment" (BEE), the policy that obliges leading companies to transfer equity and other benefits to the black majority.

Others, though, say the income-gap is a direct result of such policies, whose main beneficiaries have been a crop of politically-connected black magnates.

Moeletsi Mbeki, the former leader's brother and a critic of BEE, writes in a new book that the policy "strikes a fatal blow against the emergence of black entrepreneurship by creating a small class of unproductive but wealthy black crony capitalists made up of ANC politicians, some retired and others not, who have become strong allies of the economic oligarchy".

The new government, led by Jacob Zuma, promises more "broad-based" black empowerment. Yet it seems unlikely that much will change while there persists among those with the credentials to work the system a mindset that was best expressed by Smuts Ngonyama, a former spokesman for the Mbeki government. He said simply: "I did not join the struggle to remain poor."


Also in openDemocracy on South African politics and society:

Gillian Slovo, "Making history: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission" (5 December 2002)

John Matshikiza, "Johannesburg: shanty city, instant city" (13 December 2002)

Paul Kingsnorth, "Apartheid: the sequel" (20 May 2003)

Nahla Valji, "South Africa: no justice without reparation" (2 July 2003)

Achille Mbembe, "South Africa's second coming: the Nongqawuse syndrome" (15 June 2006)

Achille Mbembe, "Whiteness without apartheid: the limits of racial freedom" (4 July 2007)

Roger Southall, "South African lessons for Kenya" (8 January 2008)

Roger Southall, "South Africa and Zimbabwe: the end of ‘quiet diplomacy'?" (29 April 2008)

Faten Aggad & Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, "South Africa's tipping-point" (2 June 2008)

Tom Lodge, "Nelson Mandela: assessing the icon" (18 July 2008)

Roger Southall, "Thabo Mbeki's fall: the ANC and South Africa's democracy" (13 October 2008)

Elleke Boehmer, "Beyond the icon: Nelson Mandela in his 90th year" (12 November 2008)

Roger Southall, "South Africa's election: a tainted victory" (7 April 2009)
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