By Neil Cosgrove
In April, South Africa celebrates the 25th anniversary of the country’s first democratic election, when its entire adult population was first able to vote. The African National Congress (ANC) became the governing party, after decades struggling to loosen the “European” minority’s grip on the country’s political and economic power. Nelson Mandela, a prisoner for 27 years, became president.
Unfortunately, while political apartheid is history, economic apartheid is still very much a reality, as this headline from news site African Globe succinctly puts it: “South Africa has the highest concentration of wealth in the hands of a few whites.”
Turns out that it is a lot harder to reverse centuries during which a violent minority systematically and “legally” deprived a country’s majority of political agency, property rights, and empowering education. In 1994, a little more than 8% of the population controlled the financial sector and the primary sources of the country’s wealth, namely the mining of gold, diamonds and coal, along with livestock, vegetable and fruit farming.
Currently, the African Globe reports, 10% of South Africa’s population possess “at least” 90 to 95% of the country’s assets while earning “’only’ about 55 to 60% of all income; ”40% of the people, a so-called ‘middle class,’ “earn about 30% to 35% of all income but own only 5% to 10% of all wealth.” The bottom half earn about 10% of all income and own no measurable wealth. Moreover, “wealth inequality within the majority African population,” writes African Globe, “exceeds nationwide wealth inequality by far.”
Not surprisingly, the people who possess such accumulated wealth live in a privileged bubble, while the rest lack the resources to stimulate economic growth and overall well-being. In 2018 South Africa’s economy grew by a paltry 0.7%, says the Jamaica Observer, while unemployment exceeded 27%, more than the US rate at the height of the Great Depression.
As in the United States in recent decades, having a job is hardly a guarantee one will be well-fed and adequately housed. On January 1st, South Africa implemented its first minimum wage of 20 rand ($1.39) an hour and 3,500 rand ($243) a month. During a recent trip to South Africa this writer was able to directly witness just how such severe inequality and grinding poverty impacts daily living.
In South Africa, with its long and very recent history of legally sanctioned theft by a minority from the great majority of its residents, keeping body and soul together demands forms of “self-employment” and “entrepreneurship” that middle-class Americans would regard with distaste. But when one has no job, or one that pays very little, such “work” looks more like bald necessity. So-called “crimes of opportunity” abound, such as a 10-year-old snatching a necklace from a young woman’s neck, and then getting away via a deftly executed broken-field run through traffic. Other “work” includes creative panhandling that may feature bits of street theatre and role-playing, ranging from practiced but quite believable tales of woe to wearing mime-like white face or Santa hats while extending tin cans or milk cartons towards the car windows of motorists idling at traffic lights. Some sell household goods at the same street corners. More direct entrepreneurial activity might include wealth distribution through the use of guns or knives; sometimes organized gangs pull off sophisticated scams at ATM kiosks.
My wife’s relatives and friends, mostly “coloured” and “indian,” to use apartheid-era passport designations, are definitely in the middle class—doctors, teachers, IT workers, musicians, accountants. Even they can struggle at times to find full-time employment, and their relative well-being produces a life-style most Americans would find inconvenient. They live behind concrete walls topped with barbed wire, go in and out of their homes through electronically controlled gates, turn motion-activated electronic beams on and off, pay for the availability of quick-response armed security teams. Some neighborhoods are walkable in daylight; many more are not, and late evening strolls are simply out of the question.
That’s the environment severe inequality in wealth distribution creates, an environment Americans now witnessing growth in inequality themselves must recognize. The majority of Americans have been able to ignore, so far, the worst results of our own colonialist capitalism. Large numbers of our indigenous peoples were erased through conscious genocide during our colonialist period, and the brutally exploited among us black, Hispanic, and white—have been historically confined to areas the middle and upper classes seldom, if ever, visit.
But globalization, regressive taxes, massive inheritance transfers, and a mindless adherence to a mythical “free market” ideology have, over the past 40 years, rapidly expanded the numbers of Americans without property or capital. And contemporary South Africa shows it is much easier to distribute wealth fairly in the first place than it is to redistribute it once it has mostly fallen into the hands of a fortunate few.
The middle class South Africans I know, in their professional and volunteer work, demonstrate a social consciousness in marked contrast to the willed obtuseness about race and class for which the American middle class is notorious. Colored and Indian South Africans must daily confront the consequences of severe wealth inequality. In addition, many had family and friends of the previous generation who actively fought apartheid and, with their black counterparts, suffered exile, banishment (a particularly draconian form of house arrest), and imprisonment. Their country’s past and present are always with them.
How much of America’s future will depend on a long overdue understanding of our own past and present?
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.