▲ The South African flag. Provided by gtreview.com.
Ever since the end of apartheid, South Africa has earned itself a reputation as a shining beacon of racial equality and prosperity, with its dark past behind it. Or so it says in the papers. As soon as one takes the lid off of this crowning jewel of Africa and takes a closer look, it becomes clear that there exists an ugly—and often untold—side to this success story. South Africa may be the most affluent country on the African continent, but it is by no means free from the vices that continue to shackle its people.
It has been more than two decades since the infamous apartheid* was brought to an end and opened a new chapter of democracy and spectacular growth for South Africa. The country has long served as a moral paragon for many countries and their leaders that are still haunted by rampant racism to this day. In the meantime, its economy remains as the largest in all of Africa, with skyscrapers decorating the skylines of its world-renowned cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town.
▲ A residential area in South Africa. Photographed and provided by Johnny Miller.
Post-Apartheid South Africa: Extreme Polarization
Despite all these trappings of success, a completely different story emerges once one peels back the layers. The most telling evidence of South Africa’s problems is its handling of racial issues, something which has recently come under question owing to some photographs that exposed the inconvenient truth about its economic prosperity. Using a drone, an American photographer Johnny Miller laid bare the appalling inequality between whites and blacks. The pictures show a wall that is segregating a wealthy neighborhood with large houses from a noticeably impoverished area with cramped living quarters on the other side. One does not have to be an expert to figure out which race occupies which side.
Signs hanging in shop windows that openly discriminate against blacks may no longer be visible, but the economic segregation, which is subtler and less visible but very much present, still defines the post-apartheid lives of most South African people. This drastic discrepancy undoubtedly stems from the socio-economic divide during the apartheid era. In other words, the disproportionate amount of privilege that the white minority held during that period has largely passed on to successive generations without much redistribution.
▲ A residential area in South Africa. Photographed and provided by Johnny Miller.
Although the polarization of wealth is a universal problem that even the most advanced nations struggle to grapple with, the scale of this conundrum is unparalleled in the case of South Africa. To paint a more accurate picture, South Africa’s Gini coefficient**, which measures the extent of a country’s wealth disparity on a scale from 0 to 1, stands at 0.696. Given that the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have an average of 0.32, the severity of the issue becomes crystal-clear.
In the meantime, the average income of whites is eight times higher than that of blacks. The overall unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent, with uneducated blacks comprising the majority of the unemployed. Despitethe government’s land reforms, which sought to wrest the land from the vested interests after apartheid, “Much of the real estate is still owned by whites,” said Professor Robert Rudolph (Division of International Studies), which is also evidenced in Johnny Miller’s photographs.
The Failure of Black Empowerment
Compounding the problem is the fact that such extreme polarization along racial lines only accelerated after the end of apartheid. Even Thomas Piketty, the world’s leading economist known for his famous book Capital in the 21st Century (2013), admitted that South Africa’s income disparity is something that confounds him and his fellow economists. “Inequality is not only still very high in South Africa, but has been rising, and in some ways, income inequality is even higher today than 20 years ago,” Piketty explained to the audience at a lecture hosted by the University of Johannesburg last year.
▲ President Jacob Zuma. Provided by dailymaverick.co.za.
According to his statistics, “60 to 65 percent of South Africa’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of just 10 percent of the population.” This figure is in sharp contrast to that of Brazil, which also faces similar challenges, with 50 to 55 percent of the national wealth held by a small circle of the elite. In order to address this issue, Piketty urged for more comprehensive land reform measures in pursuit of more even wealth redistribution.
At the same time, this unfortunate outcome can be partially attributed to the South African government’s failed education policies—arguably the most effective tool in alleviating wealth discrepancy. Despite the government’s substantial investment into education, surpassing all other African countries, the performance in math and science of South African students was ranked the lowest in Africa. In fact, nearly one-third of elementary students in South Africa are illiterate. Therefore, it is imperative that the government overhauls its educational system to cultivate more educated and skilled black workers.
Racism Embedded in the National Psyche
There is no question that the end of apartheid only perpetuated the income inequality, but has it ended the outright racism? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The attitudes towards other races have not changed significantly since apartheid. Professor Rudolph said, “Implicit racism still underlies the thoughts and behaviors of most South Africans, especially whites.”
One recent case that illustrates such inherent racism is a high school policy that officially banned the afro hair on the grounds of it being “untidy.” In August, Pretoria Girls’ High School ordered its students to straighten their hair, to which black students responded by initiating a protest movement under the hashtag #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh on Twitter. Incidents like these occur on a weekly basis at Pretoria High School for Girls. Malaika Eyoh, a 12th grade student at Pretoria Girls’ High, wrote “White students lovingly refer to Girls High as the most fair and just school that they know. They tell us racism doesn’t exist because they’ve never experienced it.”
Professor Rudolph elaborated: “Though not outwardly obvious, the sense of superiority among the elite class underlies their thoughts and behaviors.” According to his explanation, once accepted, social norms cannot be changed overnight and this kind of nuanced discrimination is “tacitly approved” on a national level still to this day.
▲ Students at Pretoria Girls’ High School demonstrating against the school policy. Provided by i.ytimg.com.
African National Congress: Unraveling from Within
At the heart of all these problems lies the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party that has governed the country since the late Nelson Mandela rose to power in 1994. Known as the party that resisted apartheid and ended the white supremacy, the ANC has enjoyed an overwhelming support from the blacks, who account for 90 percent of the entire population. However, on the contrary to such popular support, the ANC’s track record has fallen far short of its citizens’ expectations and Nelson Mandela’s legacies.
For one, there is the incumbent President Jacob Zuma, who has been embroiled in one corruption scandal after another. The most outrageous case was when he came under fire for expropriating USD 23 million of taxpayer money in order to pay for upgrades to his sprawling mansion, including an amphitheater and a swimming pool. The Constitutional Court ruled his wrongdoing to be an infringement of the Constitution, stirring a nationwide uproar and an international condemnation.
Nevertheless, calls for his impeachment by the opposition parties were ruthlessly silenced in the face of the ANC’s near-monopoly of the South African Parliament. The ANC has traditionally occupied the vast majority of seats in the Parliament, which enables such abuses of power. Not surprisingly, it appears as though the South African people are increasingly losing faith in its ruling party, which seems to take its power for granted.
The latest indicator of shifts in the South African political landscape is the ANC’s worst-ever losses in a local election held in August. Although it has won the overall election by garnering 53.9 percent of the votes cast, the ANC’s influence seems to be going downhill by all appearances. For instance, it has lost to its archenemy—the Democratic Alliance (DA)—in major economic hubs like Pretoria and Port Elizabeth. Considering how the DA has been historically linked to the white minority, this outcome signifies that the race is no longer the sole determinant in elections.
South Africa’s worst nightmare may be over, but the fallout continues to divide the nation and insidiously wreak havoc on the lives of the less privileged. Thankfully, the country has a better chance of curing its ills than most of its neighbors, as it is equipped with ample economic resources. The only thing that is lacking right now is the willingness from the leadership to turn the tide around and make South Africa great again. The recent election results offer a glimpse of hope that its people are not going to stay silent anymore.