31 Years Later, South Africa’s Battle With Apartheid Is Not Yet Won

Photo by John-Paul Henry

On 11 February, 31 years ago, Nelson Mandela was liberated from his 27-year toil in prison. This climactic event would mark the beginning of the end for the Apartheid regime. Finally, the National Party that had controlled South African society since 1949 had fallen. It was simply no longer feasible to violently resist the growing resistance of its racial underclasses. Fear had driven them to the negotiating table.

South Africa’s emergence as a democracy is a popular case study. It is presented as an inspirational narrative of a peaceful transition of power, away from a violent, racist regime to a multi-ethnic participatory democracy. The South African history textbook “ends” in 1994, the year of the first democratic election, where free contestation allowed this narrative’s hero, Mandela, to sweep to power. It’s a quintessential fairy-tale of the over-optimistic 90s. The end of Apartheid coincided perfectly with the fall of the Berlin wall; a demonstration that authoritarian regimes would eventually crumble to the inevitable march of liberalism, capitalism, and democracy. Yet 30 years later, as authoritarianism again rears its ugly head in post-Soviet states, it becomes clear that the fight is not yet over. The same is true of South Africa.

In the context of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa seems like a relatively ideal country. It maintains one of the highest GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita on the continent; consistent economic growth; a lack of reliance on natural resources; a decent Human Development Index (HDI) rating; as well as a higher democracy rating than Brazil, Poland and India. Yet, according to the Gini coefficient, it has the highest inequality of any country on the planet by a fair margin. South Africans live two different lives. On one side of the divide exists safety, luxury, and health reminiscent of Western Europe. On the other, lawlessness, poverty, hunger, and sickness. This dual economy exists along racial lines; the white unemployment rate is 8.1% and the black 33.8%.Not only do whites make up the wealthiest members of the service sector, but they own 73% of the country’s farmland, land that black South Africans labour on.

The ugly truth is that a more sinister and less overt Apartheid endures. Under the National Party, the government used regulation and force to control the social mobility and economic position of blacks. Institutional economic inequalities and poverty’s feedback loops are now the factors that control social mobility, and they can’t be sanctioned or warred into submission. The Gini coefficient has increased since the end of Apartheid—the economic system actually creates more social disparity than Apartheid did. This situation is ironically rooted in the CODESA negotiations, the 1990–1994 negotiations to end Apartheid. The National Party, understanding the dangerous potential of militant factions and the story in neighbouring Zimbabwe, opted for reform in the face of revolution. The National Party’s sunset clause guaranteed their joint governance after the first election; retiring civil servants were given comfortable pensions, and economic disparities were secured.

Initially, the South African government tried its best to increase the social mobility of the black population. Mandela’s government created BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) in order to “ensure broader and meaningful participation in the economy by black people to achieve sustainable development and prosperity.” Yet, almost three decades later, the economy is more unequally divided along racial lines than ever. Realistically, believing in a complete transformation of the economy from 1994 was excessively idealistic; it would never be easy to remove institutions embedded in the very foundations of society.

The onset of COVID-19 is likely to further increase the economic disparity between the rich and the poor. A solution to such a hardcoded issue is hard to come by. While a black middle class is beginning to emerge, it’s mostly made up of civil servants guaranteed a solid government salary. There is a notable dearth of black-owned private corporations. Apartheid’s segregated neighbourhoods have only become more insular as the wealthy hide behind electric fences in fear of poverty-fuelled crime.

The African National Congress (ANC) has done little to tackle such difficulties. The party is responsible for the emergence of an ultra-rich elite privy to government kickbacks, as the main benefactor of its inefficient government spending. Yet, it has entrenched itself to the point that it routinely achieves landslide majorities despite numerous scandals. This article does not call for the quixotic academic approach that argues for the complete change of South Africa’s political culture and economic institutions. The fact is that contemporary South African institutions are still distorted and corrupt, a factor which must be taken into account in an international perspective.

South Africa presents a rather unique situation to the outsider. The most distinct dual economy in the world, it should not be overlooked because of its high HDI or GDP per capita. In reality, poverty akin to other developing countries persists in the country, along broadly racial lines. While political Apartheid is over, economic Apartheid still grows more powerful. The problem is only exacerbated by current methods of foreign aid. Temitope Leshiro (2013) at the University of South Africa demonstrates “the relationship between aid and growth is negative both in the short and the long run.” Realistically then, real change in South Africa will be slow, and it must come from the inside.

This does not mean combating inequality in South Africa is a completely lost cause. The problem can be dealt with by supporting independent checks on government inefficiency. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) should support the infrastructure, political and economic, that can make gradual improvements easier in South Africa. While this article warns readers to be wary of being over-optimistic, that does not mean that there is no hope for its future. Financial leaders are opting to increase private investment in poorer areas of South Africa, believing in the nation’s “long-term” potential. South Africa will emerge from COVID-19–induced downturn to a phase of economic reconstruction and potential growth; the question is whether it will be able to break down economic disparities at the same time.


By Jonathan Tostevin