On Tuesday the University of Johannesburg’s Faculty of Humanities hosted a discussion on urban inequalities in Brazil and South Africa. Like much academic discourse, this one left participants with very little about which to be hopeful. These are bleak times, but we do have to speak about it. By KHADIJA PATEL.
Much research years has sought to explain why inequality in Brazil has decreased sharply in the last decade while South Africa’s level of inequality has remained stubbornly high. And yet despite the economic boom that catapulted Brazil into the ranks of the wealthiest countries in the world, inequality levels still remain among the worst in the world. As Professor Chris Landsberg from the University of Johannesburg’s politics department remarked, the title of most unequal society in the world is still hotly contested by both South Africa and Brazil.
Such a discussion of the similarities and differences in the manifestation and response to inequality in Brazil and South Africa—even if only in academia, where real life is relegated to the buxom curve in a graph—is useful. It reminds us that beneath the veneer of the headlines of politically motivated social cohesion, a governing party at war with itself, union turf wars and service delivery protests that turn ugly, there is a greater problem in the country that has been consumed into the common sense notion of what it means to be South African: Some people are very rich, others are very, very poor.
Even the look of our cities, with the presence of informal settlements and their more sophisticated variant, entire villages of government-provided low-cost housing jutting from the red sand along the country’s freeways have contributed to a tacit acceptance of the way things are. In the tufts of red sand kicked up by the broken shoes of children, the presence of substandard settlements entrenches poverty, inequality and unequal standards of living. A dire lack of development dissolves our sense of who we are. South Africans are struggling to define a national identity, and inequality has become a fundamental part of who we are.
And just as South Africa’s informal settlements and sub-standard government housing projects invoke a deep-seated recognition of inequality, so too have Brazil’s favelas found themselves at the centre of the country’s ambitions to be, as we call it in Johannesburg, “world class”.
Last year Brazilian authorities evicted thousands of favela residents from their homes in Rio de Janeiro and other cities to make way for new infrastructure developments in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Many residents were relocated and re-housed, but others were left homeless.
Amnesty International’s secretary general, Salil Shetty, visited Brazil to meet activists fighting their eviction, and his Brazil researcher, Patrick Wilcken, succinctly the price of the country’s more worldly ambitions on the disenfranchised. “We are asking authorities at all levels that this development does not take place at the cost of human rights," he told the Guardian UK. “While hosting the World Cup and the Olympics is a great opportunity for Rio and other capital cities around Brazil, they should be events for all Brazilians, whether they are rich or poor.”
According to one measure, the Brazilian Gini coefficient fell from 0.604 in 1993 to 0.55 in 2008. Degol Hailu, International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) and Sergei Suarez Dillon Soares, Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA) noted that the cause of Brazil’s success against inequality is still unknown but the role of education has been immense.
“Much remains unknown about why inequality has fallen, but two sets of known causes stand out. The first consists of improvements in education. In the early and mid 1990s, for example, the workforce gained more equal access to education. This is because of universal admission to primary schooling and lower repetition rates. In conjunction with other demographic trends, such as a decline in family size and improvements in family dependency ratios, access to education helped reduce inequality,” he wrote.
The country’s 2010 census, however, showed Brazil still has a long way to go to become a more egalitarian society. Among the most glaring inequalities, the figures found that 25% of the population still lived on an average monthly income per capita of R$188 ($106) and half the population on R$375. This was compared to the monthly minimum wage in 2010 of R$545.
And perhaps the reality is best manifested in 1-million of Rio’s 6-million residents who still live in favelas. Although the country is said to have produced 19 millionaires a day since 2007, some 16-million people—equivalent to the population of the Netherlands—continue to live in abject poverty. More than twice that number, 40-million people, around 20% of the population, fall below the World Bank’s national poverty line.
And if mowing down of favelas to make way for World Cup infrastructure sounds familiar, it is because our own experience with preparation for the 2010 World Cup was not dissimilar. We too cleaned the streets of informal traders to make space for the sheer bulk of Fifa’s demands. And then there were the allegations that an entire community was hidden in efforts to make a town easier on the eye of tourists.
The South Africa Civil Society Information Service reported that Sandeep Mahajan, World Bank lead economist for South Africa said recently that, “South Africa is a complete global outlier in terms of its inequality and how inequality has been persistent over time. The bank, the SACSIS reported, “developed a Human Opportunity Index, which it applied for the first time here. According to the Word Bank, the factor that matters most in a child's ability to advance in South Africa is his/her ‘location’ with respect to access to opportunities and services such as water, sanitation, electricity, healthcare and education. Children who grow up in townships, informal settlements and rural villages are at a distinct disadvantage.”
South African statistics show that, unlike the case of Brazil, there is little to be positive about. Gini coefficients using per capita income show South Africa’s income inequality increased from 0.66 in 1993 to 0.7 in 2008. And according to the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s South African Reconciliation Barometer last year, it is income inequality that keeps South Africans more divided than race. About 32% of those surveyed believe it is the most divisive issue, compared to 20% who believe race divided the country. We really do need to keep talking but at some point we will have to start doing something about it as well. DM
- Brainstorm: The state of income inequality in South Africa in Daily Maverick.
Photo: Children play in Rocinha slum in Rio de Janeiro November 14, 2011. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes