On 29 May 1998, South Africa’s then-deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, declared that “the material conditions in our society have divided our country into two nations, the one black and the other white”.
Mbeki claimed the disparity in “material conditions” was so great, it was possible to label South Africa a country of two nations.
“One of these nations is white, relatively prosperous” and “all members of this nation have the possibility to exercise their right to equal opportunity”.
“The second and larger nation of South Africa is black and poor” and “it has virtually no possibility to exercise what in reality amounts to a theoretical right to equal opportunity”.
Twenty years on, we have to ask whether anything has changed from Mbeki’s original diagnosis. Is South Africa still a country of two nations?
Much of what we see around us suggests this is still the case. Racial disparities in employment continue to prevail. Black South Africans are most likely to be unemployed and poor, while white South Africans are least likely to be unemployed and poor. Importantly, racial disparity also overlaps with material inequality. Why does inequality matter and is it strictly racial?
The South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB), a nationwide public opinion survey by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), shows that South Africans consistently identify “inequality” – the gap between rich and poor – as the greatest division in society. In this case, citizens’ perceptions converges with the statistical reality. A recent World Bank report titled Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa confirmed that “inequality has increased since the end of apartheid”.‘
Richer households, according to the report, are almost 10 times wealthier than poor households.
For Mbeki, inequality was an inter-racial phenomenon. But its dynamics have changed over the past two decades. Intra-racial inequality – inequality within race groups – has grown substantially, especially among black South Africans.
South Africa remains among the most unequal countries in the world, with a Gini coefficient for income per capita at 0.68. Stats SA records the Gini coefficient for income per capita among black South Africans at 0.65. The income gap among black South Africans is only slightly smaller than the national income gap.
The University of Cape Town’s Southern African Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) shows the share of black South Africans in the top income decile has increased from 13.87 per cent in 1993 to 30.79 per cent in 2008. There has been little demographic change in the lower income deciles, and new research predicts the rich may yet get richer.
However, inequality is no longer simply a black and white issue. The richest 10%, who account for 70.9% of all wealth, is increasingly multi-racial, while around half of the population is considered chronically poor, and another 27% live with the threat of poverty.
If the metaphor is extended, South Africa might be developing into a country of three nations, along class not racial lines.
In 2001, Nicoli Nattrass and Jeremy Seekings claimed ‘inequality is driven by two income gaps: between an increasingly multiracial upper class and everyone else; and between a middle class of mostly urban, industrial or white collar workers and a marginalised class of black unemployed and rural poor.’
So what hope do we have of reconciling South Africa, if the division between the rich and the poor continues to grow?
SARB findings consistently show a majority of South Africans believe it is possible and desirable to create one united nation. There is popular support for a more unified South Africa.
SARB data also shows South Africans believe the country still needs reconciliation, but that it would be difficult to achieve for as long as people who were disadvantaged under apartheid continue to be poor.
When asked to assess the changes that have taken place in South Africa since 1994, three in four South Africans said inequality was either the same or worse in 2017. SARB data shows South Africans want a united nation, but it will have to become a more equal nation.
After his inauguration in March 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa promised a “new dawn”. His efforts to implement a national minimum wage should minimise income inequality and boost spending power, but many South Africans are not formally employed. Young South Africans are disproportionately unemployed, while state funding per pupil has declined and class sizes have increased. South Africa’s new dawn cannot afford another generation of sustained inequality.
In 1998, Mbeki ended his speech by quoting the African-American jazz-poet Langston Hughes, who asked, “what happens to a dream deferred?” After 20 years of increasing inequality, we should be wary of his answer: “It explodes.” DM
Mikhail Moosa is a Programme Intern in the Research and Policy programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in Cape Town. He holds an Honours degree in Politics from UCT.
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