Post-Apartheid Inequality in South Africa

Twenty-two years after the end of the apartheid government, South Africa has come has come a long way. A far higher proportion of the population has access to clean water and electricity, school attendance has greatly increased, and GDP reached an unprecedented peak in 2011. Yet, the unemployment rate hovers at 26 percent and the African National Congress (ANC) is marred by corruption. The Rand keeps depreciating against the US Dollar and reached rock-bottom value this January. Income inequality is shocking and violence is common. So how far has South Africa really come since the end of apartheid?

Brief Colonial Background

South Africa was colonised by the Dutch in 1652, marking the beginning of almost three and a half centuries of white presence and domination. In 1875, the British arrived and took control of the Cape Colony. By 1910, not long after the end of the Second Anglo-Boer War, the British had united the four South African colonies under its rule. The Afrikaans National Party (NP) came to power in a coalition in 1924 and Afrikaans became the national language. Then, in 1934, the Union of South Africa enacted the Status of the Union Act and became a sovereign state.

The National Party came back into power in 1948 and remained the ruling party until Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela led the African National Congress to its victory. Until then, the NP had legislated and institutionalised violent suppression of the black (and mixed descent) South African population. These brutal years would lay the foundations for partially irreparable racial segregation in South Africa.

South africa inequality Nomzamo - Impakter

IN THE PHOTO:Nomzamo/Lwandle is a township bordered by the communities of Strand and Somerset West, about 40km east of Cape Town. Credits: Johnny Miller.

Inequality Today

Despite the enormous efforts made by post-apartheid presidents, most notably the first two democratically elected Presidents of South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1994-1999) and his successor Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008), South Africa today faces monumental problems of inequality. Not only is this due to the apartheid legacy, but also to the rapid post-apartheid economic growth that left little space for those without education and living under the poverty line.

Johnny Miller, a photographer who captures drone pictures of inequality in South Africa, told Impakter,

While the ANC rightly gets shamed for poor leadership and various other scandals, it’s not their blame alone to shoulder. I also think that the inheritance of such a well-executed system of dislocation and control makes it doubly hard to change in a meaningful way. I’ll give you the example of Khayelitsha, in Cape Town. It’s a massive suburb of almost a million people, almost all of them black. There are only so many options the government has to redress that inequality without resorting to massive expenditures on roads, rezoning, rebuilding, and ultimately perhaps removing. It’s going to take an incredible amount of will, financial capital, and time to see change that matters.

According to national statistics, 53 percent of South Africans are poor. Yet, using more accurate poverty thresholds, University of Cape Town economists estimate this number to be closer to 63 percent. The unemployment rate has not been lower than 21 percent in the last ten years. One in ten South Africans live in informal settlements, where living conditions are abysmal and forced evictions are frequent.

Thabo Mbeki, president before the current Jacob Zuma, introduced the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) policy in order to redistribute the job opportunities available to South Africans. In order to do this, economic privileges have to be given to historically disadvantaged groups of the population: mainly Blacks, Coloureds and Indians. It is South Africa’s affirmative action policy. It gives companies ratings based on how many members of these disadvantaged groups they employ, particularly in the higher management positions.

Although this is a big first step in establishing more equal employment opportunities between racial groups, the progress is slow. The difference in income between black and white professionals remains extreme. Moreover, we are now seeing slow-growing inequality within racial groups; a very small percentage of the disadvantaged races are becoming rich and the rest are remaining poor.

There is still a strong mistrust between the racial groups, at least in Cape Town, which is both offset and deepened by policies specifically designed to transcend and transform that reality, such as transformation in sporting leagues and Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE).

– Johnny Miller

Let us turn to workers’ rights.

During a miners’ strike in August of 2012, 34 miners were deliberately killed by national police in Marikana. The strikers were protesting the low wages and living conditions provided to them by Lonmin, a British mining company that has been operating in South Africa for over 100 years. On that day, the police was told to openly fire on the miners. Despite the grief and loss endured by the families of the victims, few reparations have been made. The lack of sincere apology and post-Marikana change shows the vulnerability of poor and working class South Africans.

Turning to tertiary education, in October of 2015, more than 10,000 university students took to the streets protesting against the planned tuition fee increase. In response, the government ordered the use of tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.

The high tuition fees maintain the elitist system that prevents the majority from accessing the education they need to become competitive in the work force. The high fees also increase the opportunity cost for students of poor and working class families to attend university. The struggle to decrease these fees is ongoing. Students are beginning to protest less peacefully and the police are responding more violently.

In fact, the situation has now become so tense that classes were suspended last week in several South African universities after demonstrations turned violent. Jacob Zuma, the current President, claims that free education is not possible and the police are now using stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets on students.

South Africa, Inequality IN THE PHOTO: Large student meeting at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in October 2015. PHOTO CREDIT: Tony Carr

The national elections, planned for 2019, are another complex topic for South Africa. The ANC, the national ruling party led by Jacob Zuma, faced major setbacks in the local elections in August of this year. To the surprise of South African news reporters, the younger political party known as the Democratic Alliance (DA) received a higher percent of the vote than the ANC in some areas.

Yet, it is hard to tell whether the DA will be victorious in the 2018 national elections, given the doubts on whether Mmusi Maimane will be able to seriously tackle racism. One can see the extent to which race is at the forefront of everyday conversations about politics.


In addition to the statistics and facts, the racial inequality that exists today is felt in everyday life in South Africa. The apartheid history is deeply embedded in the national consciousness, and the residual tensions are felt in daily interactions between different groups. Eliminating these historically grounded emotions is going to take a lot of work for South Africans.

There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.

-Nelson Mandela

After three and a half centuries of white colonial domination, South Africa has many deep wounds that it has yet to heal. Unfortunately, these wounds cannot be healed in just one generation. It is vital that all South Africans work together through the next generations to overcome the past and create the society that Nelson Mandela envisioned. For South Africans, the struggle for equality must go on.


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Feature Photo: Papwa Sewgolum Golf Course. Photo credit: Johnny Miller. Find more on his Twitter/Facebook pages.
EDITOR’S NOTE: THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED HERE BY IMPAKTER.COM COLUMNISTS ARE THEIR OWN, NOT THOSE OF IMPAKTER.COM. When this article refers to inequality, it refers specifically to racial inequality.
About the Author /

Chloe is currently living in Canada, studying Economics and International Development. She is passionate about global health and politics, and looks forward to collaborating with organisations in the future to make progress in reducing poverty and achieving multi-dimensional equality. Find more from Chloe on

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