A Glimpse of South Africa’s Multi-Layered Inequality

Author: Katherine Trebeck, Global Research Policy Adviser, Oxfam Great Britain @ktrebeck

It started at the boarding gate at Heathrow.

Of South Africa’s 54 million population, the majority are black (80 per cent), compared to 9 percent white. Yet at Gate C54 where a flight from London to Johannesburg was boarding, almost every person in the queue seemed to be white. Of course I knew that South Africa’s economic inequality followed racial lines. But as I got on the plane (for a trip to work with colleagues and to visit some community projects), I have to admit feeling shocked that this aspect of inequality was so visibly manifest in a little microcosm of privilege and wealth.

Another dimension of this inequality is seen in the extent of food insecurity – one in four people in South Africa are hungry on a regular basis. One might think that such statistics concur with how we ‘Heathrow-istas’ too easily stereotype ‘Africa’ – as a monolithic country in a constant state of drought, famine and war. Yet, that is far from the reality – South Africa is, in fact, ‘food-secure’; i.e. it produces enough calories to feed every citizen.

That so many go hungry is a matter of distribution, not scarcity.

And this (mal)distribution is a matter of politics, economic processes, and of course, an undercurrent of racism and the legacy of Apartheid.

Racism evident when a colleague – who is black, but married to an Irishman and hence checks into hotels under her (noticeably Irish) married name – is routinely given room upgrades whereas her fellow travellers (with their clearly un-Irish surnames!) aren’t.

But more seriously, South Africa’s maldistribution breeds violence and fear of each other (far from the South African concept of ‘Ubuntu – I am because you are’). This fear of each other plays out in the 6-foot walls, the barbed wire, and the security cameras installed by those who have the means. It plays out in the insistence by my hotel that they drive me the three blocks to our office every morning, rather than letting me walk. It plays out in the experience of several colleagues who have recently been victims of violence. These are the realities of a country of insecurity – a forthcoming Oxfam report will show that security is where South Africa particularly fails to lift its citizens above a social foundation.

Looking at such layers of inequality, Tristain Taylor of Earthlife Africa has described South Africa as dealing with a ‘broken economy’. He says:

When we have nearly 40% unemployment, when most young people can’t find a job and stand around township corners, when education is hard to get and quality healthcare harder, when people go to sleep hungry, when people have to live without electricity or clean water, we have a broken economy.

When the majority of the country is poor while a minority lives it up, driving Ferraris and holidaying in France, we have a broken economy.

Transformation of these complex and deep-rooted structures is necessary to build a system that is good for us, one which heals and protects rather than harms and hurts. Someone I met in Johannesburg spoke of searching for ‘acupuncture points’ or footholds into the system with which we can lever wider change and through which we can move from an extractive and accumulation-obsessed system to one which celebrates sharing, small and local businesses; and which enables people to feel in control of their lives and have optimism for the world their grandchildren will inhabit.

One of these footholds might be the FLOW Coin (Fostering Local Wellbeing) initiative – a local currency launching on the 30th of May which is seeking to revive local economies by encouraging local circulation of spending and countering the current economy’s fetishisation of the ‘big’ and the ‘competitive’. In preparation for its launch, FLOW commissioned short films, made by local young people using second hard i-phones to celebrate small stories by showing how small and local can be beautiful.

Another chink or acupuncture point might be the growing number of South Africans who, fed up with frequent power outages (as the national power company ESCOM fails to provide consistently), are installing their own solar panels. In a country where, 23.5 percent of households lacked access to electricity (in 2012), this is a practical, yet significant example of people taking provision into their own hands and making use of abundant renewable energy.

And finally, one of those chinks was surely in evidence at Khangezile Primary School in Springs (an hour from Joburg).


This climate change resilience and adaptation programme (developed by the local community in partnership with Oxfam, Gender CC Southern Africa, and EarthLife Africa) involves harnessing scarce rainwater and installing biomass systems to use the scraps from the school’s kitchen to irrigate and fertilise plants in the school’s little vegetable garden (with the result that they need less water to grow). Taylor reflected on this project in light of the wider structural imbalances and inequalities in South Africa, and concluded:

…there is a solution, and, in part, it is this project.

To generate power through clean technology is the only way we can reduce our emissions and prevent catastrophe. Every school, every office and home needs to take control of their power supply and use clean renewable energy, and this project is  a step towards that…

Change does not happen in boardrooms or at the United Nations. It happens right here, on the ground, where we live, play and, most importantly, learn.

These small projects show that a different way of using money, of generating energy, of sharing, living, and trading is possible. South Africa has many ‘formal’ pieces of institutional architecture in place – such as strong institutions and a constitution that enshrines the right to clean and healthy air and the right to food. And it is doing relatively well in terms of female participation in Parliament and gender parity in education.

But the country seem to be at a crossroads, facing the choice between extracting every last mineral from its land and every last labour hour from its workforce, in the name of GDP growth, or choosing to build an economy that serves people and planet, not the other way around.

2 thoughts on “A Glimpse of South Africa’s Multi-Layered Inequality

  1. Abdul Kader Moola

    I agree totally with this article. Those who are living comfortably must realize that thet the status quo is untenable, that, like the Arab Spring, there will be massive upheavable in the country in which those who live the good life will ultimatley suffer if the living conditions of the masses don’t change. Fat Cats, you need to change now before it’s too late. If you really want to make South Africa your home and that for your children and grandchildren, start sharing and caring for those less fortunate before it’s too late. Like you, everyone has the right to food, work, home, security, etc. which are enshrined in the constitution. Be less selfish if you want peace and a comfortable and safe future.

  2. Kamaria Balkisson

    This hit the nail on the head. South Africans are so focused on achieving the lifestyles of the Kardashians, that even the poor would rather buy flashy shoes than further their education. The race issue makes it even more delicate as those with undue wealth refuse to acknowledge their part and when faced with crime and poverty, cry White Genocide.


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