Unrest, Inequality and Poverty in South Africa


BEAVERTON, Oregon — In July 2021, South Africa experienced serious unrest that resulted in widespread damage and destruction, particularly in the province of Kwazulu-Natal. The events of July are closely tied to longer-term trends of inequality and poverty in South Africa. More recent political developments may have initially stoked the unrest. Still, these long-term issues of inequality and poverty created the ideal environment for turmoil.

Income Inequality and Poverty in South Africa

Poverty in South Africa is apparent in widespread malnutrition as hunger has risen for years. Hunger has grown dramatically. At least two million more South Africans suffered from hunger in 2020 in comparison to 2008. In addition, one in four children suffers from stunting due to malnutrition.

In an interview with The Borgen Project, Nickolaus Bauer, a politics and business journalist with extensive experience covering South Africa, discussed inequality and poverty in South Africa. He left little to interpretation as he stated clearly, “in the past decade, these issues have become far worse and pernicious. Economic growth has stagnated, unemployment has grown and poverty has mushroomed.”

The lack of job creation in recent years is also a critical component of poverty in South Africa. Government efforts have done relatively little to restructure the economy after apartheid, resulting in minimal job creation.

Government Inaction

In an interview with The Borgen Project, Khanyi Mlaba, the editorial lead for Southern and East Africa at Global Citizen, discussed how low job creation coupled with high youth unemployment has worsened poverty in South Africa. Mlaba adds that, according to the World Bank in 2019, South Africa stood as “the most unequal country in the world” in terms of wealth inequality, a fact that is apparent at every turn.

Since the end of apartheid, the South African government oversaw economic restructuring efforts that largely failed to alleviate the hardships of impoverished South Africans. Instead, immense wealth remained with a few white capitalists and a new, super-rich class of Black elite. The most impoverished 40% of the country controls less than 8% of the wealth.

Furthermore, almost 20% of South Africans survive on less than $1.90 a day. Mlaba points to the fact that the government’s efforts to overcome barriers formed during apartheid are inadequate. According to Mlaba, the government’s use of short-term band-aids instead of long-lasting solutions means poverty and inequality continue to persist within South Africa.

Corruption and the Impact of COVID-19 in South Africa

Corruption is also a critical component of both inequality and poverty in South Africa. From 2009 to 2018, President Jacob Zuma oversaw widespread corruption throughout his time in office. Estimates indicate that Zuma cost South Africa at least $35 billion and three million South Africans fell below the poverty line during his time in office.

Mlaba said that persistent corruption and unaddressed apartheid inequalities mean inequality and poverty continue to worsen. Mlaba told The Borgen Project that the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the state of corruption, inequality and poverty in South Africa. Bauer makes a similar assessment, discussing how lockdown measures had prevented millions of South Africans from going out and earning the low subsistence incomes they need to survive. Income inequality also rose due to the pandemic as more South Africans fell below the poverty line.

Political Issues Spark Unrest

The unrest occurring in July 2021 was incredibly damaging, leading to hundreds of deaths and hundreds of injuries. In addition, numerous businesses were damaged or destroyed. Estimates indicate that the unrest damaged a minimum of 40,000 businesses.

Politics sparked this unrest following the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma in July. Zuma supporters took to the streets, but the situation quickly spiraled out of control. The unrest was so damaging and extensive that the South African military was called in; 25,000 soldiers were sent in to reestablish control. Additionally, the government has accused some former Zuma allies of instigating the riots; however, it has yet to acknowledge its failure to restructure South Africa’s economy in recent years.

Bauer explained that inequality and poverty in South Africa make the country a tinderbox for instability. Rather than Zuma’s incarceration, these reasons are the real drivers behind the unrest occurring in July 2021.

Rebuilding South Africa

The unrest has had long-term impacts on the state of inequality and poverty in South Africa. Mlaba highlighted that much of the turmoil greatly impacts the province of KwaZulu-Natal as much of the unrest was centered in this province. Kwa-Zulu Natal faces a hard hit of more than $3 billion worth of damages, which will take some time to recover from. Mlaba also explains that the unrest led to severe infrastructure damage, which will only exacerbate South Africa’s issue with job creation.

President Cyril Ramaphosa assured South Africans that assistance would come from the government in the wake of the violent unrest. Yet, in some of the areas hardest hit by unrest, hunger combined with a lack of government support has resulted in private groups and citizens stepping in to help. In the aftermath of the unrest, South African citizen Emelda Masango created the RebuildSA Facebook group, attracting almost “27,000 members willing to clean up looted shopping malls, donate money and transport food.” The volunteers gathered food and basic necessities through “donations and a collection drive” to redistribute to people in need in Kwazulu-Natal. The group’s efforts also include partnering with organizations “to provide mental health support and trauma counseling” to those in need.

Looking Forward

While the political event of Zuma’s arrest instigated the unrest, essentially, the unrest ties deeply to long-term inequality and poverty in South Africa. At the end of her interview with The Borgen Project, Mlaba said the events of July highlight the importance of dealing with underlying issues of poverty and inequality and that those in power need to take action on inequality and poverty in South Africa so that history does not repeat itself. However, inspiring a sense of hope amid government inaction, ordinary citizens are showing a united front, coming together to rebuild South Africa.

– Coulter Layden
Photo: Wikipedia


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