CAPE TOWN — The echoes of apartheid still reverberate across South Africa. Although it has one of the strongest economies in Africa, poverty and unemployment still grip the country. Oxfam South Africa describes the country as “a young democracy which is still grappling with the legacy of the oppressive system of apartheid socially, economically and spatially.”
Indeed, the poverty rate in South Africa is largely influenced by race. as Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance party has noted, 39 percent of black South Africans were unemployed as of 2014 while only 8.3 percent of whites were unemployed. Even though black South Africans are the vast majority, they still struggle to gain access to opportunities whites take for granted.
After dismantling apartheid, economic inequality rose, and the poverty rate in South Africa increased. In 1993, roughly 11 million people lived in poverty, in 1996, two years after the country’s transition, 13.6 million people lived in poverty. By 2000, it was up to 14.6 million.
Furthermore, in line with trends capturing the entire the globe, wealth disparities have been increasing as well. Between 90 to 95 percent of all assets in South Africa are owned by 10 percent of the population, even though they only make up roughly 55 to 60 percent of the total income earned.
As Oxfam reported, “in 1993, as apartheid was coming to an end, the richest 10 percent of the population had a combined annual income of $36 billion. By 2011 this has grown to $69 billion. In comparison, the poorest 10% earned a combined income of $1 billion. In all of 17 years, this did not increase at all.” Moreover, most of this wealth is still held by white South Africans.
With a population of roughly 55 million, 27.7 percent of the country is unemployed. Of this, five million are young people. Worse yet, national leaders predict future economic growth to be an abysmal 0.6 percent. With widespread unemployment, minuscule growth predictions and deeply entrenched inequality, the poverty rate in South Africa and wealth gap seem to be on an irremediable path.
However, South Africa is one of the few countries that has embraced social grants to battle inequality and poverty. As apartheid came to its end and the country prepared itself to deal with the deep fissures running through the country, the government embraced a form of distributive politics, the Growth with Employment and Redistribution program (GEAR), which includes old age pensions, child care grants, and disability payments.
These social grants are non-market cash payments to citizens, making up about 3.4 percent of the national GDP, and received by more than 30 percent of the population. Furthermore, from 2002 to 2012, households experiencing hunger fell from 29.3 percent to 12.6 percent, education and health have been improving, and adults reported to live in the lowest living standards fell from 11 percent to 1 percent.
These politics of distribution stand in direct contrast to a vast majority of the world, and particularly the global north. After dismantling welfare states, financial institutions continue to grow, with credit and debt increasing which define citizenship, and privatization of public services is skyrocketing. South Africa, along with a handful of other nations, has embraced policies focused on social protection and poverty reduction through government support and action.
Far from discouraging or reducing economic activity, which is the dominant logic against social grants and welfare states, South Africa’s GEAR program has incentivized people to become economically active and continue toward ending poverty and inequality in the country. The poverty rate in South Africa is an indication of apartheid’s legacy, and by embracing politics of distribution, the nation is chipping away at the lingering shackles.
– Joseph Thomas Dover